Thursday, April 30, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

By Steve Evans

Once upon a time, director Sam Raimi made effective horror films. His Evil Dead trilogy has a cult following that rivals anything Dario Argento or George Romero ever made.

In 1990 Raimi released a remarkable superhero movie -- Dark Man with Liam Neeson -- before anyone was taking superhero movies seriously.

Raimi shot A Simple Plan, one of the best neo-noirs of the last 20 years. This movie convinced me Bill Paxton could act and provided proof positive that Billy Bob Thornton was no flash in the pan, either.

And in the three Spider Man movies starring Tobey McGuire, Raimi imbued comic-book movies with an understanding of myth that would make Joseph Campbell proud, all while enjoying a level of commercial success that had eluded the director for most of his career.

Now Raimi returns to the horror film, the genre that made his bones. From the looks of the trailer for his newest project, it seems that Raimi never forget his roots and is now getting back to them with a vengeance.

Drag Me to Hell could be the sleeper of 2009.

Check out the trailer and decide for yourself.

Opens May 29.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Caw! Caw! Good Times With the Black Crowes

The Black Crowes: Freak 'n' Roll...Into The Fog
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2006 // 150 Minutes

By Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Here's the latest installment in my recurring series of DVD concert reviews. If you dig heavy-rock blues, this is one of the best packages on the market.

Let's Rock
Listen up, because there's some wonderful damn noise waiting to come out of this DVD. The Black Crowes lay down 19 classic songs over 2 ½ hours of live concert footage shot in high-definition video at the historic Fillmore West. Flash, bam, pow! This is the finest rock 'n' roll DVD to hit the street since Jimmy Page remastered old Led Zeppelin footage and turned loose that stunning two-disc Zep set in 2003.

I see these cats in concert every year during the leg of their tour that brings the Crowes through Virginia. In between those annual sets, this disc will do.

Got Live at the Fillmore If Ya Want It
Here's the righteous truth: The Black Crowes kick out cosmic jams like nobody working today. This is a superb document of one transcendental evening on their 2005 reunion tour, with all the hits and plenty of surprises. It gets better. Here's a disc that's affordably priced at less than $15, considering the tremendous amount of content—all of it beautifully captured in high-def with the aural wonder of a fully immersive Dolby 5.1 audio experience.

San Francisco. The Fillmore West. This was rock impresario Bill Graham’s original, legendary venue: a concert hall where Jimi Hendrix wailed on a Stratocaster and Janis Joplin yowled into the microphone; where the Dead jammed for hours during an endless summer long ago. The Fillmore is also where Martin Scorsese shot The Last Waltz and 30 years ago captured the definitive live performance of The Band. So perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that The Black Crowes finish their Fillmore set with a note-perfect cover of The Band's "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down." The Crowes cover all their hits from six studio albums, including perennial crowd pleasers like "Sting Me," "She Talks to Angels," and "Hard to Handle." Lead singer Chris Robinson seems uncharacteristically sedate at first, but soon starts dancing in his bare feet and wailing his heart out. When the Crowes settle into an extended jam on "My Morning Song," the audience quiets to a hush. It’s a moment of pure rock transcendence, on par with Jimmy Page's extended soloing on “Dazed and Confused” (note: while we're talking about Zeppelin's influence on the Black Crowes, the uninitiated should also give a listen to the Black Crowe's 2000 tour with Page, captured on the deliriously hard-rockin’ Live at the Greek).

Truth be told, The Crowes in their prime laid down some chops as heavy as Zeppelin's Sturm und Drang on classics like “Whole Lotta Love.” The message of that great Zeppelin track is about as subtle as a locomotive barreling into a tunnel. And the Crowes' "Hard to Handle," a cover of an Otis Redding hit, blasts off with the same sentiment:

Baby, here I am
I'm the man on the scene
I can give you what you want
But you gotta’ come home with me

I have got some good ol’ lovin’
And I got some more in store
When I get through throwin’ it on ya
You gotta’ come back for more…

I am reminded of the great music critic Greil Marcus, who once said, "Ninety-nine percent of all rock 'n' roll is about sex. And the other one percent isn't worth listening to."

I'll take those odds any day.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Sweetness & light, I’m tellin’ ya. Technically, the DVD is flawless with a beautiful hi-def image complemented by a choice of three audio options. There's not a single instance of pixilation or image breakup. Audio is crystal-clear with vigorous surround-speaker action across the sound stage and tight response from the subwoofer.

Extras are limited to grainy behind-the-scenes footage, much of it amateurishly photographed. There's also an odd Easter Egg with about a minute of blurry, psychedelic concert footage, but no audio. Peculiar, but not a deal-breaker. Fact is, the main concert is so damn good as to make any carping about extras seem almost petty.

This is another fine disc from the wicked-cool cats at Eagle Rock, who understand what a concert DVD ought to be. And they deliver, time and again. I’ve never cranked up a bad disc from Eagle Rock. Of their many product offerings I have seen, this one's the rockin’ best, hands down. In fact, stop fooling around with this review, get off your ass and go buy the DVD right now. You can thank the Black Crowes later.

Set List:
• "(Only) Halfway to Everywhere"
• "Sting Me"
• "No Speak No Slave"
• "Soul Singing"
• "Welcome to the Goodtimes"
• "Jealous Again"
• "Space Captain"
• "My Morning Song"
• "Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz"
• "Cursed Diamond"
• "She Talks to Angels"
• "Wiser Time"
• "Non Fiction"
• "Seeing Things"
• "Hard to Handle"
• "Let Me Share the Ride"
• "Mellow Down Easy"
• "Remedy"
• "The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down"

You can listen to The Black Crowes here.

And watch one of their concert videos (listening tip: turn off the jukebox at right, below).

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dogma at 10: Saints, Sinners, Sleazy Censors

Written and directed by Kevin Smith.
Starring Linda Fiorentino, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Rock, Alan Rickman, George Carlin, Salma Hayek, Jason Mewes, Alanis Morisette, Smith and assorted star cameos.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

For the next few weeks, during the 10th anniversary of Hollywood’s last good year, I’ll occasionally rewind the reels and review some of the films that marked that unprecedented burst of creativity in 1999. Dogma was one of those films, a picture that appeared just when it needed to, at a nervous time during the turn of the millennium.

Chubby auteur Kevin Smith's satire of Catholicism irritated leaders of the church, amused his fan base and spurred confused shrugs from most everyone else. With the benefit of 10 years hindsight, I am probably not alone in my view that Dogma has evolved into no classic. But it does deliver R-rated laughs for constant foul language, scatological humor, and brief (but potent) violence. As satire, that’s enough.

Let’s take another look…

The pitch:
A woman suffering a crisis of faith must stop two fallen angels from sneaking back into Heaven and thereby negating existence in this ribald, raunchy and occasionally provocative satire of Roman Catholicism by the director of Clerks.

By turns gleefully offensive, juvenile and, yes, even brilliant, this edgy comic parable deserved better than the hail of criticism that rained from some (non-official) segments of the Catholic Church. A contingent of bishops even called for a boycott.

Verily, film fans, here is the gospel: those who lose or even doubt their faith after seeing this film didn't have a strong grasp on it to begin with. Director Smith is clearly a religious man, if not a devout Catholic in the traditional sense. And he knows the Bible better than some of his critics. His intent here is to question the machinations and politics of the church, not the underlying principles of faith that members embrace for meaning in their lives. And Smith doesn't push as far as he could have: his camera never even enters a sanctuary. No blasphemy has been committed here, although the picture is assuredly not for all tastes. Perhaps the greatest offense, though, comes from people who would condemn Dogma without seeing it. We can't do anything about that, since willful ignorance and hypocrisy are not crimes in this country. Then again, neither is blasphemy.

Smith's great success is he removes religion from the holier-than-thou hands of official church spokesmen and turns possession over to the clumsy and imperfect people who must live in this world. For his trouble, the director received death threats and mediocre box office. It seems Smith pushed all the right buttons.

Aye, what would Jesus ask of his disciples? Direct them to threaten murder against a smarty-pants movie director? If only Smith's film explored such ironies....

A Bit of Plot...
Fiorentino (right) stars as Bethany, a world-weary worker at an abortion clinic. One of the movie's quiet ironies is Bethany's infertility. Alone in bed, she receives a message from God in the form of a fireball that turns into Alan Rickman (recall the terrorist leader in Die Hard). The sensible Bethany blasts a fire extinguisher at the intruder, then threatens to crown him with a baseball bat. She cools off when Rickman unfurls his wings and tells her to settle down. Affecting a fey English accent, he explains that Bethany must stop a pair of fallen angels who call themselves Loki and Bartleby (Damon and Affleck) from passing beneath the archway of a renovated church in New Jersey. These wicked angels once were God's messengers of doom – the fiery Old Testament stuff – but they fell from Her favor and She banished them to "a place worse than Hell" … Wisconsin. Eager to regain entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven after spending millennia in the land of cheese, they discover a loophole in Catholic dogma. If Damon and Affleck walk through the church in Jersey, they may have a plenary indulgence – what Catholics call instant forgiveness for all sins – which entitles direct admission into Heaven. Problem is, that would show God is fallible. And that would trigger an outcome worse than the apocalypse – all would cease to exist.

The cardinal of the church (George Carlin, having a blast as a holy man) plans to rededicate his sanctuary to God with a new marketing campaign endorsed by the Vatican. He calls it Catholicism Wow! At a press conference, Carlin unveils a statue of the Buddy Christ, a grinning, winking figure with a prominent thumbs up. Buddy is a new totem for a new generation bored with the traditional symbols and rituals of the church (The posture of Buddy Christ also bears passing resemblance to Mr. Natural, below right, the brain-addled philosopher in Robert Crumb’s acid-drenched underground comics. That, if anything, might rankle the devout, assuming they are hip to the subreference).

Back in Wisconsin, Damon enjoys toying with the fragile faithful. Wandering through an airport like some sinister Hare Krishna, he convinces a nun that she has wasted her life. Soon the poor sister heads off in search of fashionable clothing and a one-night stand with a random stranger. The fallen angels snicker at their mischief.

Bethany seems a strange choice to stop a pair of rotten angels. She is a reluctant hero, preferring to tithe her salary from Planned Parenthood to the church. Only when her life is saved by two unlikely prophets, Jay and Silent Bob (Mewes and director Smith), does she believe in the urgency of her mission. Jay and Silent Bob (below right) are recurring characters in all of the director's films.

Jay is coarse and chatty: a stoner with a sharp, foul tongue who cannot conceal his basic cluelessness. And Mewes, the actor who portrays him, damn-near steals the film. As Silent Bob, Smith has three words of dialogue in the entire picture, but his range of facial expressions can bring down the house. They hook up with Bethany after she is attacked outside the abortion clinic by three teenage demons wielding hockey sticks. After Jay and Silent Bob dispatch the thugs, Bethany wants to know why they're hanging around an abortion clinic.

“We thought it would be a good place to meet loose women,” Jay declares.

Together, this triumvirate is joined by Rufus, the 13th apostle (Chris Rock) who literally falls from the sky to help them.

Rufus says his role was left out of the Bible because he's black. He also claims Jesus once told him the meaning of life during a wedding reception in Cana, “but I got drunk and forgot it.”

They meet a stripper (the delectable Hayek), who claims to be the inspiration for 19 of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time. But she won't take credit for Home Alone.

“Someone sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of crap,” she declares.

Extending the metaphor, the heroes are soon attacked by an excrement demon that rises from a toilet and, well…what’s a Kevin Smith movie without a little potty humor?

While Bethany and her holy helpers ponder how to fight the demon, Damon and Affleck make their way across the country, spreading murder and mayhem. The fallen angels crash a board meeting of The Mooby Corporation, a company clearly modeled after Disney (which passed on distributing this film, fearing the ensuing controversy). Damon berates the board members. Enjoying the power of omnipotence, he chronicles their private sins and then slaughters them all, splattering their blood on the corporate mascot – a golden calf wearing Mickey Mouse pants.

Well, we get the idea.

Smith’s screenplay is crammed with pop-cultural references, both sly and obvious, from his curious obsession with Star Wars characters to ancient commercials for floor wax. At times, we wonder if he might be trying too hard, especially during the longish second hour when each character gets to deliver a speech (sermon?) that earnestly explains the importance of faith, regardless of religious denomination.

The director also wobbles at the climax, when angels Affleck and Damon lay waste to a city block surrounding the church. These and other scenes of jarring violence seem out of place in a comedy. The bloodshed throws off the tone of the film, illustrating once again that, as with most art forms, less is more. When the point is made, move on. Smith loiters.

Perhaps he’s struggling to maintain his momentum. Maybe he'll sustain that high note in another film (the last 10 years have not been kind to Kevin Smith). But in Dogma, after soaring completely over the top with two hours of anarchic excess, he literally ends with a squeak when Alanis Morisette arrives for her cameo as God. Morisette may be an impassioned vocalist, but she's no actor. And a movie that wants to push the satirical limit needs a climax that packs an ungodly wallop and an almighty bang, not the thespian exertions of a rank amateur.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved, except images from the motion picture “Dogma” copyright © 1999 Miramax Films.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Shutter Island Teaser Poster Revealed

By Steve Evans

Paramount Pictures has released a teaser poster for the upcoming Martin Scorsese thriller, Shutter Island. A placekeeper for the film's website is now online, with the promise of more content coming soon.

This is going to be one of the greatest films of the year, hands down. Tentative release date is Oct. 2, just in time for Oscar season.

If this synopsis doesn't get you salivating, film fans, you'd better check yerself into a hospital and get defibrillation double-quick:

"From Oscar®-winning director Martin Scorsese, "Shutter Island" is the story of two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), who are summoned to a remote and barren island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a murderess from the island's fortress-like hospital for the criminally insane."

Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are in there, too.

I will be all over this picture opening day like a duck on a Junebug.

Why? After four decades of crafting amazing films, this greatest of living directors would still be a legend on the basis of these titles alone:

Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. The Departed.

Scorsese is the Man.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Bogie Beguiles in Light Hearted Dark Comedy

We’re No Angels
Paramount // 1955 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Bogie beguiles in a rare comedic performance.” ~ sez Cinematic Cteve.

Opening Shot
Paramount Pictures presents a whimsical and occasionally dark comedy of three escaped felons: Humphrey Bogart (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Peter Ustinov (Spartacus), and gravel-voiced Aldo Ray (God's Little Acre). The actors run on cruise control, but they are so smooth and fun to watch that the film's thin plot is easily forgiven.

A Bit of Plot…
Joseph, Jules, and Albert (Bogart, Ustinov and Ray) escape the notorious Devil’s Island prison. Joseph is a master forger. Breaking out of prison enables the multi-talented Jules to avoid a life sentence as a wife-murdering safecracker. Albert was likewise pulling a life stretch for knocking his uncle over the head — fatally. Albert is inseparable from his pet, a poisonous viper named Adolph that the convict carries with him everywhere in a little basket.

Hiding around a French port, they wait for a ship to stow aboard and affect their escape. But it’s hard to maintain a low profile when their stomachs are grumbling. Needing money, they plot to steal from kindly merchant Felix (Leo G. Carroll, North by Northwest). When they learn of his accounting troubles, the escaped convicts have an inexplicable change of heart and decide to help Felix, instead. They talk Felix into hiring them as roofers in exchange for room and board. Peering through the skylight, the troublemaking trio eavesdrops on Felix and his family. Felix frets the arrival of his cousin André [Basil Rathbone (The Son of Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes)], who owns the shop and intends to fire Felix if his books don't show a profit. Daughter Isabelle, 18, pines for her old flame Paul, who has just returned to France. All of this is going down right before Christmas.

When Paul and André arrive unexpectedly, they turn out to be arrogant asses. André threatens to ruin Felix ands turn his family out in the street. But the nasty businessman doesn't reckon on the schemes of three wily criminals who have taken quite a liking to their adoptive family.

Historical Context and Significance
Director Michael Curtiz (who had worked with Bogart on Casablanca, and Rathbone on The Adventures of Robin Hood) and his all-star cast are clearly having a blast with this roguishly charming comedy, even though they never shift higher than second gear. Too dark for a farce and not wild enough to classify as screwball comedy, the film teeters along an odd middle ground, searching for an elusive tone that never comes.

The main fascination comes from seeing tough-guy Bogart in one of his very few comedies. His wry sense of humor practically drips with sarcasm. (At right: Ustinov and Bogart don't seem too concerned about the menacing Rathbone.)

Ustinov excels at effete snobbery and gets off some of the best lines, stealing the show with his droll manner and condescending commentary. Ustinov made a career out of playing oily charmers, charlatans, and crooks, as well as occasional heroes such as Agatha Christie’s elegant detective Hercule Poirot (see Death on the Nile for Ustinov in action).

The gravel-voiced Ray is by turns menacing and charming, and sometimes both at once. Contemporary viewers watching Ray in this picture will immediately think: Hey! That's where Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) got his shtick.

The supporting performers are adequate, if uninspired. Leo G. Carroll is serviceable in his trademark role as a benign and lovable fuddy-duddy, while Rathbone isn't given much of a stretch playing the bad guy.

And we know that any time a deadly snake is introduced early in a film, that serpent is going to pop up sooner or later as a key plot point.

On the upside, this is a gorgeous Technicolor film, glowing in rich, vibrant hues, even though most of it was obviously shot on the Paramount backlot and nowhere near France. The digital transfer is beautiful. Audio is presented in the original mono and sounds fine.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’ll tell ya. Paramount deserves a ding for delivering a disc with no extras, not even a trailer.

As an aside, it's worth noting that the 1989 film of the same title is only distantly related to We’re No Angels. The more recent version with Sean Penn and Robert De Niro is a remake in name only.

The Contrarian View
We’re No Angels is a curious little comedy, flirting with the macabre, then pulling back to play nice. It’s not dark enough to qualify as black comedy, à la Psycho or Dr. Strangelove, nor is it light fare. But it’s a seriously good-looking film with an exceptional cast of tough guys enjoying a rare cinematic romp. Imagine Fred C. Dobbs with a little more savvy and a sense of humor. For Bogie fans, this is a must-have.

Since this is technically a Christmas movie, We’re No Angels could serve as amusing counter-programming to all the holiday schmaltz that plagues the airwaves from the day after Thanksgiving through December 25. That's reason enough to spin this disc.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved, except images from the motion picture “We’re No Angels” copyright © 1955 by Paramount Pictures.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Our Obsession With 15 Minutes of Fame

Being John Malkovich (1999)
Dir: Spike Jonze. Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener and, yes, John Malkovich.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

I lament the lack of creativity in contemporary film. When the biggest hits of the year are based on comic-book characters, are sequels of successful films, or both, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the future of cinema. Sure, something fresh and vibrant sometimes finds its way into theaters as if by accident, but it doesn’t happen often. So I increasingly find myself hopping in the time machine for a ride back to when movies mattered.

It’s been a decade since Hollywood had a good year. We have to turn back the clock to 1999 when a slate of startling, incredibly creative films popped up like wild mushrooms. Whatever it was – perhaps widespread worries about the turning of the millennium – the movies of 1999 tapped into a vein of originality that hasn’t been seen since. That was the year of Kubrick’s subversive (and wildly misunderstood) swansong, Eyes Wide Shut, and best picture winner American Beauty – a revelation from a major studio. The Sixth Sense delivered a sensational twist to become one of the best ghost stories in cinema. David O. Russell’s Three Kings reinvented the war movie and eerily presaged much of what we have been fighting about in the Middle East ever since. Schwarzenegger capitalized on the turn of the new millennium with the devilish End of Days. And video director Spike Jonze, working from an outrageous script by newcomer Charlie Kaufman, unleashed the most wildly inventive satire in a generation.

In tone and texture, Being John Malkovich is that rare film that cannot be adequately described, although my game attempt follows below. It must be experienced. Demented and funny as hell, there has never been anything like it, before or since 1999. If you haven’t seen it, by all means do. If you have, now might be a good time to revisit this odd little film on the cusp of summer blockbuster season when more of the same makes us hunger for something different. Like being someone else for 15 minutes.

A bit of plot...
A puppeteer reluctantly takes a job with a bizarre company on the 7 ½ floor of a NYC office tower, where he discovers a secret door leading into the mind of actor John Malkovich.

Got that? Here’s a wildly inventive, completely crazy satire of celebrity obsession – spiced with a quest for eternal life, adultery and betrayal, madness, and gender confusion.

Being John Malkovich almost defies description. First-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s delightfully demented tale unfolds like a hallucination that could have been penned by Lewis Carroll under heavy medication. You’ve never seen anything like this. You probably never will again.

Cusack is a sensitive puppeteer whose skills just aren’t in high demand, although he blames his lagging career on “this wintry job climate.” His loopy wife (Cameron Diaz, adopting the shlub look, left), is devoted to a menagerie of house pets – a dog, assorted cats, a neurotic chimpanzee (the monkey’s problem stems from a childhood incident, we are told), an iguana, an aquarium of tropical fish and an obnoxious cockatoo. The noise in their one-bedroom apartment could push anyone over the edge.

Diaz tells her brooding husband that he needs to find a real job. Responding to a cryptic classified ad, he takes the elevator of an office building to the 7 ½ floor – yes, the elevator stops between the 7th and 8th levels. Scrambling into the hallway, he discovers that the ceilings are only five feet tall. Everyone walks hunched over, turning their heads sideways to talk, like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The explanation behind the construction of this floor is just as preposterous and equally funny. Cusack ambles down the hall, puzzled, looking as though he’s just popped down a rabbit hole. The receptionist talks in gibberish and confuses his legitimate questions with sexual harassment. Flummoxed, he’s ushered in to meet the boss, a mysterious doctor who doesn’t explain the company’s business, but offers his new employee a position in the filing department.

The job’s a snore, but Cusack takes an immediate liking to a co-worker (Catherine Keener), a shark in a woman’s business suit. She doesn’t think much of the scruffy puppeteer, but gets the hots for his wife. Diaz is equally smitten with Keener.

As if that wasn’t enough trouble, Cusack discovers a tiny door behind a filing cabinet at work. The portal opens to a narrow corridor, dripping with mud and effluvia. He crawls inside and is propelled, as though riding a water slide, through some sort of metaphysical corridor that deposits him into the mind of Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich. Cusack sees the world through the eyes of Malkovich for precisely 15 minutes before he is ejected, falling from the sky by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s an inspired bit of lunacy.

The time limit inside the actor’s mind is no doubt a reference to Andy Warhol’s comment that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.

Exhilarated, Cusack tells Keener of his trip inside Malkovich. She smells a business opportunity. Who wouldn’t pay to be someone else – anybody else – for 15 minutes? The fact that it’s a celebrity only sweetens the deal.

Soon customers are queued up along the office hallway, waiting to pay $200 each for a ride inside the famous actor (at right). Cusack persuades his wife to give it a try. Diaz slips inside the portal, but only after Keener arranges a date with Malkovich. That way, while Diaz is inside the actor’s mind, she is able to indulge her fantasies with Keener. She can be a man seducing a woman. The new perspective is intoxicating. After Cusack picks her up by the turnpike, Diaz declares that she either wants a sex-change or to be a lesbian. Doesn’t matter which. It’s hard to convey the hilarity of this scene, which is best experienced first-hand, as a small comic miracle that keeps building as Cusack does a slow burn.

Malkovich is superb playing not so much himself, but perhaps the public perception of who he is – a quiet man given to contemplation and understated elegance. The supporting players are likewise marvelous, especially Diaz, who seems to take delight in hiding her beauty behind a challenging role that demands she look and act like a neurotic ditz.

Cusack is always fun to watch, although his films are hit or miss. This may be his best role since Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). Here, he fully understands the controlling nature of his character. After all, for a guy who loves to pull the strings of marionettes, what could be more satisfying than crawling inside another person’s brain and making him do tricks?

First-time feature director Jonze, who got his start shooting innovative music videos, has a fractured way of looking at the world. It’s as though he was peering at his characters through a prism of broken glass – the different facets of their personalities never throw the same reflection twice. They’re unpredictable. As such, we feel off-balance in an amusing way, like exploring a funhouse with warped mirrors and tilted floors.

Being John Malkovich landed on multiple top 10 lists in 1999. It was a good year for rookie director Jonze, who also enjoyed a great supporting role in Three Kings as a hick infantryman. For all its lunacy, Being John Malkovich still earned Oscar nominations from the serious-minded Academy: for Jonze as best director, Keener as Best Supporting Actress and for Kaufman’s original screenplay.

A decade later, the film remains as audacious, anarchic and outrageously funny as the day it was released. I say with sorrow that we will not likely see its kind again.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Raising Hell with the French New Wave

The 400 Blows: Criterion Collection
Criterion // 1959 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Angel faces hell-bent for violence.” From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot
The tagline above belies the sensitive quality of this first film by a director whose name is now synonymous with haunting, cinematic art. The 400 Blows also marks the birth of the French New Wave, as director François Truffaut (Jules and Jim) broke many of cinema’s rules and established a few new ones with this landmark, semi-autobiographical picture. The title, Les Quatre Cents Coups, comes from a French idiom meaning something along the lines of “to raise hell,” which is an apt description both of Truffaut’s childhood and the young protagonists of this film.

Criterion’s presentation and supplements are impeccable. This boutique film company specializing in arthouse cinema is the best in the business.

A Bit of Plot…
Young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), sleeps in the kitchen of a small apartment in Paris with his uncaring mother and stepfather. His mom is having an affair; his stepfather pays little attention to the boy. Antoine’s teacher is a verbally abusive bully who courts favorites and punishes on a whim.

Seething with resentment, Antoine cuts classes to spend his days at the cinema. He steals food and drink, and commits other petty crimes, when he’s not tormenting pedestrians with a pea shooter. But mostly, he seems to crave acceptance in a world that has rejected him. Confronted with his truancy, the boy runs away from home. He begins living on the streets of Paris and eventually steals a typewriter to hawk for pocket money, but is caught and arrested. His parents relinquish their rights to the juvenile justice system, which sentences Antoine to incarceration on a work farm. There is a shot of Antoine being driven away at night as he gazes through the bars of the police wagon, a solitary tear streaking along his cheek. The moment could crack the hardest of hearts.

A lyrical climax consisting of one long, continuous tracking shot leads to a justly famous conclusion — powerful and appropriately ambiguous, like life itself, which is the film’s principle concern.

Historical Context and Significance

The 400 Blows captures the world of a troubled adolescent in a manner that was vibrant, fresh, and thrilling for audiences viewing this seminal film in 1959. For the contemporary viewer with a receptive mind, the picture still delivers these sensations. Many of the techniques employed in this picture — freeze frames, fluid tracking shots, unusual editing rhythms — have long since been co-opted and overused in everything from exploitation pictures to television commercials. So it’s worth realizing that these stylistic devices were a sensation in 1959, before every aspiring filmmaker began using them to achieve similar effects. Today these innovations are an ingrained part of our film vocabulary.

Truffaut’s cinematic surrogate, actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, was not yet 14 when he starred in the director’s premiere feature. Léaud would go on to appear as Antoine Doinel in four more films: as an adolescent in Truffaut’s Antoine et Colette (the director’s contribution to the anthology film L’Amour à Vingt Ans, aka Love at 20), later finding a girlfriend in Baisers Voles (Stolen Kisses) and subsequently marrying her in Domicile Conjugal (Bed & Board), with a sad denouement in L’Amour en Fuite (Love on the Run).

Look fast in The 400 Blows for a cameo by Truffaut, who lights a cigarette and walks off screen right to left as Antoine and his friend exit an arcade (at the 24:12 mark). He appears a few minutes earlier, as one of the people enjoying the amusement ride, but his face is not clearly visible until a moment later as he walks away from the arcade. Call it a little homage to Hitchcock, of whom Truffaut (at left) was a devoted student.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Quite a lot, I’m tellin’ ya. Commentary tracks (including one by Truffaut’s lifelong friend Robert Lachenay) and supplemental material on the disc provide many details of the director’s early life that give context to this deeply personal film. Many of the situations in The 400 Blows spring directly from Truffaut’s troubled childhood. He never knew his father. His mother married another man when Truffaut was an infant and, as he grew older, the couple barely acknowledged his existence. As a baby he lived for some time with a wet nurse; later, his grandmother would care for him. Truffaut would recall as an adult how he witnessed his mother kissing another man on the street one day — a trauma replicated in the film. The young Truffaut also skipped school to watch movies and commit crimes, mostly petty larcenies. The cinema eventually became his home. It may be no understatement to note that his spiritual father André Bazin, co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma, saved Truffaut’s life and set him on a course leading to film — first as a critic and soon as a director. The 400 Blows is dedicated to Bazin.

The restored high-definition image is stunning. The mono audio has been cleaned up dramatically, compared to the crackling print I remember from a film festival more than a decade ago. Criterion also delivers a mouth-watering selection of supplements. Two separate audio commentaries feature Lachenay and cinema professor Brian Stonehill (who offers a useful crash course in the French New Wave). There’s also rare audition footage of Léaud and other young actors in the film, plus newsreel footage of Léaud at Cannes, two television interviews with Truffaut, and a restored theatrical trailer. The keepcase contains a tri-fold with images from the film and an essay by Truffaut biographer Annette Insdorf. A nice package, this.

Jules and Jim remains the director’s masterpiece (there is some competition here). Truffaut in this first picture begins to play with the stylistic devices that he would deploy to perfection, in the service of an even more powerful story, in Jules and Jim, of which the Criterion two-disc edition comes with my highest recommendation. Comparing the two films reveals the rapid evolution of an artist whose gentle humanity finds perfect expression on film.

Half a century later, The 400 Blows remains a brilliant slice of life that will linger in the mind’s eye and spark conversation long after the fade on that indelible freeze frame. Essential viewing.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bela Lugosi Slides Down Cinematic Skid Row

The East Side Kids Double Feature
Good Times Home Video // 1941 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Hey, why can’t I sing in da quartet? I used to sing in a quartet wit’ six members!” ~ so says Glimpy.

Opening Shot
Bela Lugosi (below right) begins his long descent into B-movie hell with this pair of poverty-row comedies featuring the East Side Kids.

A Bit of Plot...
In Spooks Run Wild, their first outing with Lugosi, The East Side Kids ship out to a mountain camp where they learn of a “monster killer” prowling the area. When Peewee (David Gorcey) is accidentally shot in a cemetery, the boys ask for help from Nardo (Lugosi), an old man who lives in the creepy mansion nearby. Nardo gives them shelter. Later that night, the boys see Peewee roaming the old house as if in a trance. Has he been turned into a zombie? (Note: Knowledgeable B-movie lovers will recognize little Angelo Rossito, below, as Bela’s butler. The diminutive Rossito sustained a long career in film — from Tod Browning’s incredible Freaks (1932) to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). He is always a fascinating and compulsively watchable presence in some of the strangest films.) While the Kids search for clues, the staff at the boys’ camp organizes a search party to look for their missing charges, accompanied by a secretive man hunting for the killer on the loose.

That’s an apt segue into Ghosts on the Loose, the Kids’ follow-up to the modestly successful Spooks. But even the most careful viewer will be hard pressed to locate any ghosts in this movie. Instead, we are treated to a young (barely 21) Ava Gardner, who plays the sister of one of the East Side gang. Much low-brow humor surrounds the kids’ musical preparations for Ava’s wedding day. Later, while the lovely Ava consummates her vows (alas, off-screen), the boys reconnoiter what they think is Miss Gardner’s honeymoon cottage. It is really the spooky old house next door—in dire need of a good scrubbing. Ever helpful, the boys set-to, cleaning and sweeping. They get the willies from weird noises and sinister characters sneaking in and out of secret passages hidden in the walls. Yikes! Nazi spies are on the loose. Bela’s in there somewhere, too. Hijinks ensue.

Historical Context and Significance
With limited acting range, an often impenetrable Hungarian accent, and apparently horrible agents, the legendary Bela Lugosi went from overnight stardom in Dracula (1931) to near total obscurity in less than a decade. By the end of his life, the faded horror star and morphine addict was reduced to appearances in the ridiculous films of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space). In this double feature we catch Bela mid-career, making the painful transition from celebrity to mediocrity, as his name would soon lend only marginal marquee value to a film project. The two films on this disc feature the wee thespian and comedic talents of the East Side Kids, a comedy troupe that began life at Warner Brothers as the Dead End Kids. Like Bela, the Dead End/East Side Kids (and later billed as The Bowery Boys) would make scores of forgettable films on puny budgets well into the 1950s. By then, some of the actors were pushing 40. Now middle-age teenagers may not be a laff riot, but their strained comedy and overwrought antics give these films a surreal, almost hypnotic quality. In sum, we’re talking bad-movie night, which is good. Remember — hilarity is hilarity, intentional or otherwise.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Image and sound quality are surprisingly crisp and clear for two films that have long been in the public domain, meaning the copyright has lapsed. Any rube with recording equipment and access to a negative can mass-produce and sell these titles. This humble reviewer has squandered hours of his life watching horrid B movies in lurid fascination, and I write with complete conviction that these movies have never looked or sounded better, given their age and the hurried manner in which each was shot and assembled more than 60 years ago.

Monogram Pictures, which produced this pair, was notorious for cranking ‘em out: three or four films per month. Although directors Phil Rosen (Spooks) and William Beaudine (Ghosts) each had a reputation for getting the shot in one take, good or bad — “cut, print, let’s move on” — these films still offer respectable cinematography and a suitably spooky atmosphere. Ghosts offers the cleaner print of the two. Blacks are rich and even in tone, with no artifacts to be seen. That’s virtually unheard of for a public-domain title digitized to DVD. Spooks is more problematic. Until the midway point, the jumpy print is all itchy and scratchy, with visible splices and a soundtrack that is clearly warped and stretched. Both films are presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with mono sound.

While we may groan at the strained plots and threadbare production values, Monogram Pictures gave many people their first shot in the business. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, who co-wrote Spooks, had greatness fermenting inside him. A decade later, he would write High Noon, creating iconographic characters for Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. So whether we look at this disc as a prime example of Bad Cinema, or as a proving ground for future talent, this double-feature should be a fascinating treat for B-movie fanatics, especially Bela Lugosi compleatists.

The Contrarian View
As comedy, this is pathetic stuff. Bela looks sick most of the time (possibly suffering a broken heart over a derailed career), while the East Side Kids work mighty hard to little effect, considering the scant chuckles they manage to yank from an audience. Similarly, extra features are in scarce supply on this disc — just one chapter of an old Lugosi serial, which at best could only whet the appetite to buy more product. And that is obviously the intent.

A minor quibble: the main disc menu features Ghosts before Spooks, yet the latter was released two years earlier. The print of Ghosts is far and away superior to the second feature, so placing it first may have been intentional: Give us a clean print and maybe we won’t gripe about the inferior quality of the second film. Still, it’s annoying that the titles aren’t in chronological order.

As mild diversions, these cheap productions might provide a laugh or two on a slow Friday night. But the real value may be from a historical perspective. Film buffs will be fascinated by Lugosi’s eccentric performances, or the occasional glimpse of future stars. Ava Gardner would eventually hit the big time in major MGM productions, while obscure journeyman actor Rossito carved a decent living out of playing sinister midgets.

I commend Good Times Home Video for presenting reasonably good transfers of low-rent films, but especially for keeping these movies alive and available. For connoisseurs of schlock, this stuff is priceless.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jammin' with George Benson

George Benson Live At Montreux 1986
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2005 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Author’s note: Starting today, at least once a week I plan to report on a particularly noteworthy concert DVD. Following in my own musical tastes, reviews will typically cover rock, jazz and classical concert discs, with emphasis on the audio/video quality and effectiveness of the SurroundSound mix. I find there are only a few pleasures in life that surpass the experience of hearing a tight band kick out the jams, especially when I pump several hundred amps behind their sound and flow it through a Dolby 5.1 SurroundSound speaker package with a seriously powerful subwoofer to deliver a rib-rattling bottom. As the first entry in this recurring series, I can testify that the disc below will set your toes a-tapping. ~ Steve

Opening Shot
Guitarist George Benson and his big band groove through 15 tracks of old-school R&B, pop, and instrumental jazz during the 20th Montreux Jazz Festival.

Dig it:
After more than 40 years of slinging a guitar, Benson’s virtuoso playing now surpasses the skill of his idol and inspiration, jazz legend Wes Montgomery (1925-1968), while his vocal style compares with Stevie Wonder. All influences aside, Benson remains a brilliant instrumentalist who builds song breaks from waves of notes cascading into octave strumming. This is the technique that made Montgomery famous. When Benson runs a solo, he takes flight like an eagle from a mountaintop: soaring and gliding, tracing intricate patterns on his Les Paul with infallible rhythm while the audience sits in stunned rapture. His soulful vocal style puts the “ool” in cool.

Benson was at the top of his game when this show was recorded July 1986. Looking for a new definition of smooth? Here ’tis.

The man is long overdue for recognition as one of the greatest living jazz guitarists. Back in the ’70s, when his career was beginning to catch fire, music magazines would damn Benson with faint praise. Sure, he's a superb guitarist, the critics said, then they'd blast Benson for his pop leanings, which were the very sensibility that got him recognized and moved records out of store bins in the first place. Purists liked to whip on Benson for not being a “true” jazz musician because he also crooned sweet love songs and rubbed a little funk into his rhythm section. This made no more sense than trying to criticize Clapton for betraying the blues because every now and again he liked to alter the form with a hard rocking number like “Layla.”

Critical opinion has a way of being reevaluated over time, and Benson’s been jamming consistently since 1963. One spin of this DVD will make believers out of skeptics; music elitists be damned.

This disc is much more than a live greatest hits package, although all of Benson's famous songs are here. Plenty of old favorites get a workout, just as Benson puts a new spin on some remarkable old favorites. When he sings “The Greatest Love of All” he clearly means it (this song was written specifically for Benson, whose performance can be heard in the 1977 Mohammed Ali biopic The Greatest). Benson's take renders Whitney Houston’s overwrought cover of the song virtually unlistenable.

The show only gets better. A concert highlight is an absolutely swingin’ cover of the old Bobby Darin standard, “Beyond the Sea.” Benson delivers finger-poppin’ thrills from a bygone era of cool.

Returning for an encore, the band lays some funk to “On Broadway,” with a heavy bass line thumping in counterpoint to Benson’s rapid-fire scat singing. His guitar solo is an aural wonder of pin-point control; sonic acrobatics that loop back to the bridge for a tight call-and-response from the band:

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway/They say there's always magic in the air.

There was alchemy in the air the night Benson performed at Montreux. He sets up a terrific jam to close the set, with the band performing at the peak of its power. And then the levee breaks. The audience can't hold back any longer. They give it up, dancing and clapping and whooping with joy. That’s what I call a show.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Audio and video are top-notch. Three sound mixes provide maximum enjoyment either on home theater with Dolby 5.1 and DTS, or PCM stereo while on the road with headphones and a laptop or portable DVD player.

There are no disc extras, but the keepcase contains a tri-fold with decent liner notes and a smattering of color photographs from the concert. This is definitely worth having, as the notes provide context and insight into Benson's long career, now spanning more than 40 years. Word is, the guitar virtuoso is back in the studio working on an album for release later in 2009.

This is simply one of the most electrifying jazz concerts on DVD. Cheers for the music lovers at Eagle Rock who perform a valuable public service by making these great Montreux concerts available on DVD — at a refreshingly reasonable price, no less.

Set List:
• Feel Like Making Love
• Off Broadway
• Weekend in L.A.
• Lady Love Me (One More Time)
• Love Ballad
• Beyond the Sea
• Affirmation
• My Latin Brother
• Love X Love
• In Your Eyes
• The Greatest Love of All
• 20/20
• Never Give Up on a Good Thing
• Turn Your Love Around
• On Broadway

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Teenage Wasteland, Oh Yeah

The Blackboard Jungle
Warner Bros. // 1955 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“A shock story of today’s high school hoodlums!” ~ From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot
Glenn Ford deals with juvenile delinquents in this milestone ’50s film featuring a cast of rising stars and the first use of rock-and-roll on a film soundtrack.

A Bit of Plot…
Idealistic English teacher Richard Dadier (Ford, Dear Heart) joins the staff at North Manual High School, an inner-city hellhole where the punks terrorize the teachers as a matter of tradition. On the first day of school Dadier thwarts a student rapist attacking a new teacher in the library. Dadier’s students immediately start mispronouncing his name, taunting him with "Daddy-O" and petty insolence. A Navy veteran, Dadier can handle himself in a fistfight, but he prefers to hit his antagonists with kindness and respect. With an eye toward teaching these hooligans, he earns the reluctant respect of the young thugs led by Vic Morrow (God’s Little Acre) and Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night). Of all the toughs in school, Morrow, especially, is a right rotten little bastard with a switchblade and a foul attitude (at right, menacing Ford). A natural leader, Poitier has greater aspirations, but after years of parental indifference and teachers who couldn’t care less, he has virtually given up on himself.

At home, Dadier shares only the bare details of his classroom war stories with his wife (Anne Francis, Forbidden Planet, and seen at left), a delicate woman undergoing a difficult pregnancy. By midterm, Dadier will face two threats on his life, allegations of infidelity and bigotry, and enough petty torments in class to rile even the most patient teacher into a murderous rage.

Historical Context and Significance
Written and tautly directed by Richard Brooks, who based the screenplay on Evan Hunter’s novel, Blackboard Jungle virtually invented the juvenile delinquent genre in the mid-1950s. It received Oscar nominations for writing, editing, black-and-white art direction, and cinematography. By bookending the action with Bill Haley and the Comets’ then-fresh "Rock Around the Clock," the film also became the first mainstream picture to feature rock music on the soundtrack. Blackboard Jungle was an obvious influence on Rebel Without a Cause, as well as many lesser, imitative efforts. The genre flourished for a few years at the old studios like MGM, which produced Brooks’ film, and in the hands of exploitation hacks such as William Morgan. Working from a script scribbled by Edward D. Wood, Jr., Morgan directed The Violent Years just a few months after Blackboard Jungle earned a bundle for MGM. Morgan’s little exploitation quickie is the antithesis of Brooks’ high-minded and morally complex film. As such, it would make a marvelous companion to Blackboard Jungle as a double feature for the cinema buff with a wry sense of humor.

Ford is perfect as the quiet veteran who just wants to teach English. But Morrow, in his film debut, nearly steals the show as a hoodlum so venomous and menacing (by 1955 standards) that some viewers will feel their blood begin to boil every time the creep opens his mouth. Poitier radiates star presence and the quiet dignity that would later earn him an Oscar for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field. Anne Francis was always a lightweight, although her vulnerability is put to good use — even if the character’s fate is telegraphed early and often. Sharp-eyed film buffs can spot future director Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) and Jamie Farr (the cross-dressing Klinger on the television series M*A*S*H) among the gang members. Both made their film debut in Blackboard Jungle. Farr is listed in the credits under his birth name, Jameel Farah. (Above left, Mazursky, Poitier, Ford. Below right, Jamie Farr in foreground.)

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. No qualms about the video or audio; both are as clean as the source materials, which remain in great condition. Extras include a commentary track featuring the recollections of Mazursky and Farr, plus insights from Glenn Ford’s son Peter and assistant director Joel Freeman. Much of their conversation centers on the controversial aspects of the film, its surprising success, and its lingering influence. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Farr, who plays a relatively minor character and has not been seen on film or television for years, would sign on for the commentary. Ford died in 2006. Morrow was killed in a horrific on-set accident during the making of The Twilight Zone (1983). Poitier is too successful at this stage of his life to pick up a few pennies dishing on a film that was made when he couldn’t even book a room at the same hotel as his white costars.

The DVD also comes with an original theatrical trailer and a Droopy Dog cartoon, Blackboard Jumble, that spoofs the film.

The Contrarian View
Occasionally quaint by contemporary standards of cinematic nastiness, the picture still packs a bruising punch in its violence, realistic dialogue, and a sense of alienation and helplessness that was often missing from the sunny films of the 1950s.

Blackboard Jungle remains an energetic and absorbing film experience — gritty, vital, hugely influential.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bonny Ireland & Timeless Disney Magic

Darby O’Gill And The Little People
Disney // 1959 // 93 Minutes // Rated G

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“A touch o’ blarney…a heap o’ magic…and a load o’ laughter!” ~ From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot
When elderly Darby O’Gill loses his job as an estate caretaker, he catches the king of the leprechauns and demands three wishes. A pre-James Bond Sean Connery fights, sings (!), and woos Darby’s daughter.

A Wee Bit O’ Plot
Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe, Brigadoon) and his daughter Katie (Janet Munro, Swiss Family Robinson) live on idyllic Emerald Isle off the coast of bonny Ireland. Darby enjoys telling wild tales of leprechauns over a few pints at the local pub, but he can’t keep up with the maintenance of an estate under his care. When the owner sends in strapping young Michael McBride (a 29-year-old Sean Connery) to take over the job, Darby frets over his family’s future. But good fortune is his when Darby captures the king of the leprechauns and orders the little monarch to grant the traditional three wishes before he will be set free.

Much merriment ensues as the leprechaun king and his wee subjects weave their magic on Emerald Isle. Michael and Katie exchange shy glances while the town bully makes his own schemes. A dreaded banshee lends a little gravitas to the suspenseful climax.

Historical Context and Significance
One of the great Disney live-action films, Darby O’Gill and the Little People still shimmers with the quality and loving care that went into its production. Shot on location in Ireland, with interiors and special effects produced stateside, the film is utterly charming without being cloying.

The trick photography that places leprechauns in the same scenes with normal-sized actors is virtually flawless. Disney’s team of technicians came up with pioneering techniques such as mirror shots and forced perspective — optical trickery that Peter Jackson would deploy 40 years later when placing hobbits in the same shot as humans for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So convincing are the optical effects that my oldest daughter, who already has a sophisticated appetite for well-wrought children’s films, wanted to know if Darby O’Gill and the Little People relies on computer-generated imagery, or CGI. Since it was released in 1959, I assured her the film does not.

As for Connery, his performance in this picture sparked one of the great legends of modern cinema. Producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who owned the movie rights to most of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, was mulling his casting options for an action picture to be called Dr. No. But Cubby couldn’t find the right actor to play James Bond. Dissatisfied with the auditions, Broccoli shared his frustration with his wife, who remembered watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People. As the story goes, his wife pondered the problem, looked her husband in the eye and declared, “Sean Connery is the best-looking man I have ever seen.”

Janet Munro (with Connery, below right) enjoyed a brief run in Disney films before a failed marriage compounded by substance-abuse and health problems ended her career and life. She died of heart disease at 38 in 1972. When you know this, her fresh-scrubbed face and dulcet voice become all the more poignant in this fantastical and romantic evocation of turn-of-the-century Ireland. Here is an emerald-green country that exists only in the fond imaginings of Disney and directors like John Ford, who lovingly created a pastoral portrait of his native land in The Quiet Man.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Disney releases quality DVD product, although it’s often pricey. Here, the studio presents a sumptuous digital transfer of Darby O’Gill and the Little People with the original mono soundtrack. Audio and video are crisp as an autumn apple. Extras consist of three features: an in-depth and fascinating look at the creation of the special effects, a piece on Connery’s arrival in Hollywood and early career — including a recent interview with the Scotsman — and a whimsical short with Walt Disney, who personally thanks the leprechauns for their cooperation in the making of the film. These lighthearted touches underscore the effectiveness of Disney’s business acumen, delighting people as they cheerfully part with their money. This tradition continues more than four decades after his death. Although the bonus feature with Uncle Walt was filmed in black-and-white for the old Wonderful World of Disney television show, it was clearly an expensive and elaborate advertisement to produce. This short feature also demonstrates that Disney was an early master of integrated marketing, using his television program to promote an expensive feature film. Remember, this was decades before product placements and promotional tie-ins with Happy Meals became a ubiquitous part of doing business in Hollywood.

Still, it’s hard to sustain such cynicism when confronted with a delightful motion picture. Disney’s successful business strategies are mentioned here merely for perspective.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People would make a fine double feature with Disney’s The Gnome Mobile, which is a sort-of sequel.

I offer these endorsements from my children, who constitute the core demographic for this timeless film:

“Funny, funny, funny,” says Darya, 12. “The special effects were great. The whole movie was cool. Even the banshee.”

“It was good,” opines Sanders, 10. “Really good special effects. And it made me laugh.”

“I liked the kitty,” says Sophia, 8. “It’s a happy movie.”

There you have it. In this wearisome world where children are often compelled to grow up too fast on a diet of junk culture, it is perhaps comforting to know that a 45-year-old film can still deliver superb family entertainment. Effortlessly.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Possibly the Worst Film I Have Seen

Carlos The Terrorist
VCI Home Video // 1979 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
A coma might be more interesting.

Friends, I have seen some bad films in my life as a cinephile and reviewer. Some I have even watched on purpose with fellow B-movie buffs who enjoy a good laff at cinematic train wrecks. Typically, beer is involved to facilitate our amusement.

But I cannot recall a more appalling waste of time than Carlos the Terrorist, a 30-year-old ditty from South of the Border. How can I adequately convey the ineptitude of this mesmerizingly awful motion picture? Mesa of Lost Women is a masterpiece compared to this drivel; The Giant Spider Invasion comes off sublime, and Manos: the Hands of Fate might be the Citizen Kane of 1966 if it were held in competition against this remarkable thriller, which is completely devoid of thrills.

Carlos the Terrorist was directed by René Cardona Jr., who could be the Ed Wood of Mexico. And if you’re hip to that, you already know where this is going. At least Wood’s films are entertaining.

A Bit of Plot
Dissatisfied with his life as a killer, Carlos the Terrorist (Andrés García) begins to question the life he leads. After killing his crime boss, Carlos tries to trade information for help from the CIA. But when agents double-cross Carlos and kidnap his wife and daughter, the terrorist must complete a deadly mission for American operatives. If he refuses, his wife and child will die. Shootings and low-budget chases in junky old cars ensue. The ending comes off like the punchline of a bad joke that takes too long to tell.

Historical Context and (In)significance
There seems to be some uncertainty over the release year of this film by director René Cardona Jr., who also made ¡Tintorera! (¡1977!), a Jaws ripoff starring García and the bodacious Susan George (Straw Dogs, and seen at right), who I sorely wish was in Carlos the Terrorist, so I would have had a reason to watch this silly film. Some sources list a release year of 1977, others claim 1979. Whatever the year, Carlos is a pitiful excuse for a thriller.

Cardona allows scenes to play out for what seems like an eternity, long after the point of the shot has been made. Who wants to watch actors walking down the street — and doing nothing else — for 10 minutes? The feature run time of 85 minutes feels twice as long. Heavily edited, this film might actually work as an hour-long television show, including commercials.

Worse, most of the action is telegraphed by an omniscient narrator, who saved Cardona a lot of production money by describing many amazing things that we never actually get to see. We hear more about what Carlos did and might yet do, without the benefit of watching Carlos do anything at all.

Act One is almost a silent film punctuated with narration as Carlos looks stern. Or peeved. Or determined.

In Act Two, Carlos devotes considerable time to running around in his underwear after a long swim to a bad guy’s oceanfront home. I am not making this up.

Act Three finds Carlos limping for hours with a bullet in his leg. In the scene that made me laugh out loud, when Carlos is shot the actor hobbles to his feet and clutches the wrong leg for an instant before realizing his mistake and shifting his hand to grab the other limb — the leg with the special effects blood running down his pants.

All of the characters are unlikable or boring, especially Carlos. As played by Garcia, the character is less dynamic than a wooden Indian. Charles Bronson, by comparison, was positively vivacious.

What a crazy film! Sometimes the narration is in English, sometimes it shifts to Spanish without warning or any discernable reason other than sloppiness. Since there are no subtitles, being bilingual is no mere advantage to watching the picture; it is a necessity.

I am happy for star Garcia (as he appears today, at left). The actor seems to have earned a fair amount of money making shitty movies over the last 40 years. My research indicates he’s still raking in the cash – or at least he’s still trying. Garcia, who turns 68 next month, is quite the entrepreneur. His official website offers houses for rent in Acapulco. As part of your one-stop shopping experience, on the website you can also rent film locations in his native Mexico, buy Garcia’s biography, his CD, and the natural health remedies he has endorsed (the semi-retired actor is a prostate cancer survivor). His home page also displays a convenient ad for La Bombita, which is apparently a solution for those who suffer erectile dysfunction.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’m tellin’ ya. The video transfer is flecked with dirt and deep scratches throughout. The mono audio is weak and thin. Extras are limited to a few static screens of biographical information and five trailers of Cardona schlock, including this picture. The audio pops in and out during several trailers, rendering them all but unwatchable.

VCI specializes in high-quality packages of old Western serials from the 1930s and ’40s. Why the company added this title to their catalog is a mystery.

Got Anything Nice to Say, Steve?
Cardona managed to shoot this extremely cheap picture in focus.

The film’s dramatic and technical incompetence is so profound as to make watching a neighbor’s vacation videos a thrilling alternative.

On the Internet Movie Database website, under the user comments section for this film, someone has posted the following assessment of Carlos the Terrorist: “Perhaps the most beautiful and exiting (sic) film ever made!”

That’s precious; easily funnier than the flick itself.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Franco Nero Kicks Ass, Redux

Street Law
Blue Underground // 1974 // 103 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“He’s back blasting death and destruction.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot
Director Enzo Castellari worked with star Franco Nero (Die Hard 2) the previous year on High Crime (aka La Polizia Incrimina la Legge Assolve), which may help explain the tagline above for Street Law. Nero plays a different character in this picture.

By any name, Street Law (Il Cittadino si Ribella) is basically Death Wish on a budget, Italian style. Giallo (Italian crime thriller) fans can expect plenty of blazing guns, assorted crazy, violent deaths, and gallons of that unnaturally bright-red, special-effects blood that flowed in 1970s action films. The obligatory fuzz guitar and thumping bass music by Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis completes the early ’70s experience.

A Bit of Plot…
When engineer Carlo Antonelli (Nero) gets mugged (and miffed after law enforcement just shrugs), he decides to deliver his own justice. A rookie in this world of street violence, Carlo gets the immortal piss beaten out of him a few times before he meets Tony (Giancarlo Prete, Ladyhawke), a young robber who offers to help. Tony’s motives are vague, but he helps score guns and watches Carlo’s back, so they get along.

Together, this odd couple metes out rough justice on nondescript thugs. Nothing has really changed by the time the credits roll — society is still overrun with avarice, corruption, and savage violence — but fans of this genre will feel they got their money’s worth of bloodletting.

Historical Significance (a relative term) and Context
Director Castellari claims on the commentary track that his film was released before Michael Winner’s seminal Death Wish with the late, great, bad-ass Charles Bronson. It’s hard to tell who influenced (or ripped off) whom, as both pictures were released the same year in Italy and the United States, although Castellari’s picture apparently didn’t reach the states until after Death Wish.

Setting aside this chicken vs. egg debate, Castellari’s film plays more like a spaghetti western (especially during the climactic showdown in a factory) than a tale of urban vigilantism. But it is one hyper-kinetic piece of filmmaking when characters aren’t pontificating about what happened, what should happen, and what almost certainly never will.

Action fans will recall Nero played the ruthless General Esperanza in the first Die Hard sequel (left), rescued by mercenaries who took over Dulles International Airport. You can read about another of his early Italian thrillers here.

A solid character actor who often did his own stunts, here Nero comes off like an ordinary Joe Neapolitano caught up in more than he can handle. He runs, pants, sweats, cusses, bleeds and, in one memorable scene, bashes one of his persecutors in the face with a shovel — through the windshield of the bad guy’s car. Nice.

The lovely Barbara Bach (The Black Belly of the Tarantula) appears briefly to flash her dazzling smile and a bit of cleavage. Oh, and she acts concerned.

Nero speaks in his own voice; Bach’s badly dubbed dialogue is pretty funny. I wonder if she and hubby Ringo Starr cue up this film now and then to wax nostalgic when they're not rocking out to Yellow Submarine.

Castellari directs with a confident hand and shows a flair for Peckinpah-style slo-mo action (the opening credit sequence is a hoot), although the gratuitous violence grinds to a halt during the many pretentious speeches. And that’s the main problem with the picture. Characters too often pause to deliver heavy-handed sermons on the social ills of the day. This is initially amusing, but fans of Giallo films may grow restless waiting for the next shootout or car chase. Castellari likes to frame his shots at odd and unexpected angles, which helps hold interest during lulls in the action.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Blue Underground’s release is uncut and presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The elements used in the digital transfer show a fair amount of wear for a 35-year-old film. Colors are deep and saturated, though there is occasional evidence of edge enhancement and other distracting halo effects. The mono soundtrack is fine. Audio sounded better to these ears when switched to three-channel playback, which directs dialogue to the center speaker.

Extras include the original theatrical trailer and a television spot, plus a commentary track recorded in 2004 with Castellari (in his halting English), and a 17-minute featurette with the director and star Nero, presented in Italian with English subtitles. In this short feature, the men regard each other with mutual respect and fondly recall working together on many profitable low-budget films. Castellari also says this picture was based on actual events and imbues his film with a greater social significance than it probably deserves. Nero comes across as more pragmatic. Both men convey a love of making movies and their enthusiasm on this featurette is as entertaining as the film.

The cult-minded folks at Blue Underground do a consistently solid job of packaging obscure European thrillers and horror films with a nice selection of extras. The prints often leave much to be desired, but where else are we going to find these crazy psychotronic imports at such an attractive price?

Listening to the fuzztone music score reminded me of late-period Yardbirds, featuring guitarist Jimmy Page in his pre-Led Zeppelin days. Now, then: Street Law closely resembles Death Wish (or vice versa, if you prefer), and while considering this I recalled that Page composed the music for Death Wish II, in which Vincent Gardenia reprises his role as an Italian New York cop in pursuit of Big Charlie Bronson who, by the time of this first sequel, had given up his Big Apple digs for a chance to shoot punks in Los Angeles, where he enjoyed open season on thugs. All of this is a roundabout way of finding Street Law guilty of providing influential (and slightly above-average) exploitation entertainment.

And I am guilty of too damn much sub-referencing on trashy Italian thrillers. Ciao, baby. Let’s call it a wrap for today.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Down to the Crossroads: Clapton Plays Dem Ol’ Blues

Eric Clapton: Sessions For Robert J
Wea/Elektra Entertainment // 2004 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening shot…
Guitar legend Eric Clapton pays tribute to his idol, bluesman Robert Johnson.

What’s Goin’ Down?
Part jam session, part musical history lesson, this impressive DVD/CD combo features Clapton and a tight backing band performing the greatest blues laments by Robert Johnson, who died in 1938 under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27. Some of his biographers believe he was poisoned; others say he was stabbed by a jealous husband and died days later. But they sing in unison on one score: Johnson was the most influential musician who ever sang the blues and a mind-bending genius on acoustic guitar. Clapton, of course, is up to the challenge in this excellent homage.

Sessions for Robert J is an essential testament by a virtuoso guitarist honoring his roots while acknowledging Johnson’s influence on at least four generations of rock and blues musicians.

Filmed during concert rehearsals in London and Dallas, the DVD presents an intimate look at a laid-back Clapton, gigging with blues musicians in a studio setting—free from the pressures of a concert performance and the inevitable need to strut like a rock star before an audience. Clapton seems totally immersed in the music, some of which was also recorded in Dallas in the warehouse and a now-abandoned hotel where Johnson cut his final recordings in 1937.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Divided into four sessions, the first half of the DVD features Clapton and a backing quintet rehearsing songs for their 2004 tribute tour. Fans will smile to see longtime Clapton associates Nathan East thumping four strings and Steve Gadd pounding the drums. Legendary session man Billy Preston shows up to lay his hands on the mighty Hammond organ, and the keys are soon smokin’ (Preston, who worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, from Little Richard to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and who died in June 2006, is sorely missed). The second half of the disc is all acoustic with Clapton performing solo and dueling with guitarist Doyle Bramhall II.

Songs are interspersed with Clapton’s ruminations on Johnson, the hardships of his life, and the enduring impact of his legacy. This is a great bonus to a fabulous program, as it is fascinating to hear a genius like Clapton speak in awe of a musician who died in relative obscurity eight years before the British rocker was born.

Video and audio are superb, affording a totally absorbing musical experience.

The accompanying audio CD is a welcome bonus, containing 11 tracks of studio-polished songs from the DVD.

Set list:
• Kind-Hearted Woman Blues
• They’re Red Hot
• Hell Hound on My Trail
• Sweet Home Chicago
• When You Got a Good Friend
• Milkcow’s Calf Blues
• If I Had Possession over Judgment Day
• Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
• Terraplane Blues
• Hell Hound on My Trail
• Me and the Devil Blues
• From Four until Late
• Love in Vain
• Ramblin’ on My Mind
• Stones in My Passway
• Love in Vain (acoustic)

Bonus tracks:

• Little Queen of Spades
• Traveling Riverside Blues

This is a fine R&B package lovingly produced and performed by one of the greatest guitarists—alive or otherwise. The DVD shimmers on home theater; the CD makes a worthy travel companion when wanderlust takes us farther on up the road.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.