Sunday, May 31, 2009

Saxy Lady: Candy Dulfer & All That Jazz

Candy Dulfer: Live At Montreux 2002
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2005 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Alto saxophonist Candy Dulfer and her band Funky Stuff get down in this spectacular set from the 2002 Montreux Jazz Festival. Put your hands together for another terrific music DVD from Eagle Rock. If that’s not enough, then indulge in the unique pleasure of watching a gorgeous jazz musician take a saxophone mouthpiece between her lips, clamp down on the reed, and blow magic through the instrument with the sheer joy of making music. Mercy.

Give it Up for Miss Candy Dulfer

Holland’s most beautiful sax player lays down a blend of jazz, old-school funk, and Delfonics-style harmonies for an adoring crowd. These eight tracks are followed by a bonus performance from Dulfer’s 1998 appearance at Montreux. The six bonus songs include a fabulously funky cover of the Average White Band classic, “Pick Up the Pieces,” which wasn’t exactly suffering a funk deficit back when AWB was running up the charts in the 1970s. Tracks like “Do Watchu Like” and “Ooh Let’s Go” are aural wonders of erotica. Simply electrifying. Candy can rest her feet on my coffee table any ol’ time she pleases.

Dulfer worked frequently with Prince during the 1980s and recorded songs with Dave Stewart (one-half of The Eurythmics). She opened for Madonna on one leg of the Material Girl’s 1987 world tour, although Dulfer always returned to lead her own band, Funky Stuff, named for an old Kool and the Gang lyric (can’t get enough of that funky stuff). She founded the band just after turning 14 in 1983. What’s most arresting about this musician is her versatility, the ease with which she can improvise and adapt to any musical styling. In her career, Dulfer has also jammed variously with The Time, Van Morrison, and Pink Floyd, appearing with the latter at a 1990 concert in Knebworth where she blew away the audience with blistering solos on “Money” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Lemme tell ya. Like other titles in the Live at Montreux series, this disc offers multiple audio options. The DTS Digital and Dolby 5.1 will rock the house. On the downside, frequent image pixelation during the main concert is a disappointment and a serious distraction, so I’ve gotta ding the disc for a sub-par digital transfer. Even after cleaning the DVD, there’s no question this is an inherent problem on the disc, which was triple checked on a new progressive-scan machine, a Dell laptop, and a top-of-the-line Mac. The bonus tracks played perfectly. This is the first problem of its kind I have encountered from an Eagle Rock product, most of which stand as the pinnacle of excellence in video and audio quality.

Jazz fans who love Dulfer — and I’m one of ‘em — should consider this DVD essential viewing, pixelated or otherwise. The lady can play that funky music. Check it out for yo'self:

Set List:
1. Dance
2. Omara’s Dance
3. Longin’ for the Funk
4. Lost and Gone
5. I’ll Be Released
6. Do Watchu Like
7. Sax-a-Go-Go
8. Ooh Let’s Go

Bonus Performance 1998:
1. Saxy Mood
2. For the Love of You
3. Lily Was Here
4. Jamming
5. I Can’t Make You Love Me
6. Pick Up the Pieces

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

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ah-ooooo, ooooooo: Werewolves of London

The Beast Must Die
Dark Sky Films // 1974 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“One of these eight people will turn into a werewolf. Can you guess who it is when we stop the film for the WEREWOLF BREAK? See it…solve it…but don’t tell!” — from the lobby poster.

Opening Shot
The Beast Must Die is silly drive-in fun with a gimmicky climax and the always-welcome Peter Cushing (Curse of Frankenstein) to lend a little class to the proceedings.

A Bit of Plot…
Millionaire big-game hunter Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart, Predator 2) invites half a dozen unrelated guests to his mansion in the English countryside. They are wined, dined, and dealt a surprise: Newcliffe says someone at the party is a werewolf and no one is leaving until Monday morning. How he comes by this information is vague, although Newcliffe proposes to hunt and kill the brute when the creature finally transforms. His mansion is tricked out with a secret room stocked with enough surveillance equipment to get Q-Branch all lathered up in a fit of techno-weenie jealousy. Big Tom plants microphones and motion-sensors in the garden. He totes around expensive rifles and tricky flashlights. Doesn’t matter. All the high-tech gear that money can buy won’t stop a wily werewolf.

Guests include Peter Cushing and the right proper Charles Gray (who played Blofeld in the James Bond adventure Diamonds are Forever and was later the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). They play chess and act peeved over their host’s blanket allegations of lycanthropy. Michael Gambon (who has since taken over the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films) has no interest in board games, but a powerful thirst for the contents of Newcliffe’s liquor cabinet and the millionaire’s former girlfriend, who’s also hanging out for the weekend.

Come the night, there’s a bad moon a-risin’. Ah-ooooo, oooooh: Werewolves of London.

What’s All This Gibberish, Steve?
Let’s get the main problem on the table right now: There’s no werewolf in this talky picture. What passes for a werewolf is actually a big damn dog, possibly wearing a remnant of shag carpet. And he’s barely glimpsed at that. Who needs silver bullets when a box of dog biscuits would put a halt to this nocturnal threat? Cheating an audience with misdirection and plot contrivances is bad enough; don’t shortchange the customers with a tail-wagging monster.

Our secondary problem is the woefully underutilized Peter Cushing, who deserved better than this nothing part. He has maybe a dozen scenes, yet it’s Cushing’s familiar face featured prominently in the credits and on the DVD keepcase. This is sad and more than a tad disingenuous. After all those years of keeping Hammer Studios in clover by battling mummies and vampires, while stitching together the occasional Frankenstein monster, by the early 1970s Cushing was popping up in dozens of B-movies of varying quality. Some, like Horror Express, were absolutely fascinating. Others, like this low-budget mess from Amicus Studios, were probably mere paychecks for the great character actor. Three years after this foolishness, Cushing enjoyed a career revival of sorts with the original Star Wars. Director George Lucas would pay similar respect 25 years later to Cushing’s longtime co-star Christopher Lee (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). But let us return to our feature presentation.

On balance, The Beast Must Die is essentially a reworking of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” minus the suspense.

The “werewolf break” is hokey fun, if tedious, as the picture literally stops for 30 seconds to give the audience time to guess the killer while a superimposed clock ticks down. Most astute viewers will nail the culprit with ease; nevermind the ridiculous “twist” ending.

Directed by Paul Annett, who devoted most of his career to television, The Beast Must Die plays like a made-for-TV movie, with abrupt scene breaks every 12 minutes where a commercial could be inserted. The film plays equally well as a cheap action picture. The jive-talking protagonist and incongruous wacka-wacka guitar music make this film come off like a blaxploitation flick, rather than a horror film with mystery elements. Whatever he was aiming for, Annett had no feel for genre films.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Dark Sky delivers a sharp anamorphic transfer with deep, saturated colors that connoisseurs of early 1970s cinema will appreciate. There are no annoying artifacts or obvious edge enhancement. The mono soundtrack is merely humdrum — audible but unremarkable.

A surprisingly solid set of extras includes a director’s commentary track (Annett is a bit delusional about the film’s enduring worth), trailers, a gallery of production stills, plus cast and crew biographies, and a featurette on the making of the film. Still, like polishing a bucket of crap, when a studio crams a disc with added-value content it doesn’t change the fact that this is a mediocre picture.

The Contrarian View
The Beast Must Die is unique. In the history of motion pictures there’s no other flick that comes with a built-in “werewolf break.” I leave it to devoted cult-film fanatics to decide whether a “werewolf break” merits the purchase of this disc.

This lycanthropic foolishness delivers ample B-movie fun, though the film induces belly laughs that are entirely unintended. The Beast Must Die is goofy as hell, with a macho hero possessed of less common sense than a bag of potting soil. I enjoyed it anyway.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chilean Crime Cinema

Los Debutantes
Lionsgate // 2003 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“You never forget the first time.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot

In his sophomore outing, director Andrés Waissbluth demonstrates cinematic flair on a budget in this neo-noir of seduction, betrayal, and murder in the heart of Chile.

A Bit of Plot…
Naïve brothers Silvio (Nestor Cantillana) and Victor (Juan Pablo Miranda) move to Santiago from a small town in Chile after the death of their parents. Silvio needs work to support Victor so the younger sibling can finish high school, and he hides his inexperience and fear behind faux macho bluster. Victor, the more thoughtful of the two, is watchful and quiet. When Silvio takes the teenaged Victor to Don Pascual’s strip club for a rite of passage, the young men descend into a world of violence and perversion.

Victor falls hard for the stunning Gracia (Antonella Rios), a star attraction at the Mafioso’s club. Soon after, Don Pascual offers Silvio a job as driver and errand boy. It seems like the perfect gig for Silvio. The only rule: steer clear of Gracia. Anyone who has seen an erotic thriller knows this is a mandate that will invariably be broken.

So Los Debutantes (the newcomers) settle into their new life in Santiago. But as Silvio learns more about his boss and falls under Gracia’s spell, it’s merely a matter of time before Victor discovers his older brother is doing more than chauffeuring his dream woman—who also happens to be Don Pascual’s mistress. The Don has had her in his bed since she was 15. In a series of overlapping flashbacks presented out of time sequence, Gracia emerges as a femme fatale at the center of a maëlstrom, the locus of lust in a dangerous love quadrangle.

Now Gracia wants freedom. Willing to pit brother against brother and stage murders that look like accidents, Gracia is certainly ready to seduce anyone who might help her. She runs through every scrimmage in the Machiavelli playbook to escape Don Pascual’s grasp.

This erotically charged Chilean crime flick makes maximum use of an obviously tight budget, with strong casting, directing, and cinematography helping to obscure the derivative qualities of the script. The characters’ nasty invective and the film’s nonlinear narrative structure are clear signs of Quentin Tarantino’s lingering influence on crime melodramas. In this sense, Los Debutantes is not innovative or even original, but the earnest acting, the cultural flavor of Santiago, and the incredible Antonella Rios make this an intriguing neo-noir that’s well worth a look.

Any film that introduces the leading lady wearing nothing but strategically placed dollops of whipped cream is going to command the attention of at least half the audience. Rios’s entrance is certainly a compelling hook, but it is the devious mind of her character that elevates the film’s appeal beyond a voyeuristic fascination with sleazy sex and violent death. She is the soul of the picture, if not the heart. If Rios does not soon emigrate from Chile to L.A. — if that should be her desire — then Hollywood isn’t paying attention.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Picture and sound are fine. Waissbluth opts for tight shots, mainly indoors, which conveys a sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. This is certainly the director’s prerogative, although opening the frame to some of the scenic splendor of Santiago would have been welcomed. The 2.0 audio mix (in Spanish with optional English subtitles) limits the soundstage to the front and center channels. Extras are limited to a pair of trailers, one for the film itself.

The Contrarian View
As Los Debutantes moves inexorably to a violent final act, a significant subplot remains unresolved, possibly because a key discovery is so unbelievable that Waissbluth, who co-wrote the screenplay, chooses to ignore it instead. The result is a conclusion both abrupt and less than satisfying. Los Debutantes also suffers from obvious plotting. Still, getting to the climax is half the fun, and there are a few surprising twists en route, so on balance, the film delivers tawdry entertainment within the confines of story and budget.

The film is not rated, but pushes the boundaries of sex and violence that typically earn such pictures an R rating in the United States.

Although Lions Gate skimps on added content, I commend the distributor for picking up this little film and making it available domestically on DVD; Los Debutantes was not released theatrically in the United States.

Definitely worth a rental, the picture might even warrant a purchase by crime-film aficionados as a case study in the ongoing evolution — and appeal — of noir across generations and cultures.

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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Whatever happened to…Jill Clayburgh?

I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can
Paramount // 1982 // 107 Minutes // Rated R

“Two In The Morning. Two Before Lunch. Two After Dinner. Two Before Bed. Every Day.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Hollywood can be cruel to actresses closing in on 40. Jill Clayburgh was a two-time Oscar nominee for Starting Over and the seminal film An Unmarried Woman well before she turned the corner on her fourth decade. But by 1982, at the age of 38, her Hollywood career took a nosedive into melodrama from which she never fully recovered.

Clayburgh and her playwright husband David Rabe decided to tackle the topical issue of drug addiction, resulting in a film that is so transparently Clayburgh’s final bid for an Academy Award that we can practically see the sweat popping out of her forehead from all the exertion. It didn’t work.

Life’s not fair, but then again, neither is this 1982 picture that exploits drug addiction with all the finesse of a Sunday night movie-of-the-week. It reeks.

And so, we present Jill Clayburgh’s last hurrah before the cruel vagaries of fate and the politics of Hollywood would sideline her for the next 25 years to a handful of television roles, a couple of which would garner Emmy nominations.

Opening Shot
Jill Clayburgh acts her fanny off in this failed quest for an Academy Award as a driven career woman addicted to sedatives. An interesting cast, all of whom would graduate to better projects, helps alleviate some of the tedium in this melodramatic message movie.

A Bit of Plot…
Ambitious documentary filmmaker Barbara Gordon (Clayburgh) finds her life spinning out of control when a dependency on Valium threatens to destroy her. A hopeless neurotic, she hides pills in the cellophane wrapping on her cigarettes and stashes them in her jewelry box. She cuts the corners off plastic sandwich bags to hide a dose or two, and keeps an emergency stash in a vial inside a box of tampons. Above all, in classical addict fashion, she denies the pill popping is even a problem.

Her attorney boyfriend Derek (Nicol Williamson, memorable as Merlin in Excalibur) offers little help, as his thirst for alcohol casts a shadow that obscures his judgment.

Gordon’s life unravels when she decides to go cold-turkey, ultimately landing in a mental hospital. Along the way, we are told that Valium withdrawal is on par with quitting heroin. Who knew?

Historical Context
This semi-autobiographical tale by the real Barbara Gordon — a TV producer who was hooked on tranquilizers — reeks of sanctimonious preaching in the Nancy Reagan era of Just Say No. This was a time of cinematic hypocrisy when coked-out movie producers made silly anti-drug films. Even so, much of the blame for the failure of this flick can be laid on a maudlin script that avoids subtlety in favor of sledgehammer rhetorical tactics. This is ironic and maybe just a little bit sad, as Clayburgh’s playwright husband David Rabe (Casualties of War, The Firm) adapted the script specifically for her from Gordon’s memoirs.

I’m thankful that director Jack Hofsiss made only this lone feature, having spent the majority of his career directing for the theater. His other cinematic work has been limited to made-for-television films, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Jessica Lange. Given this pedigree, it’s no surprise that the film before us plays like a stage production. Hofsiss deploys an A-list cast and decent production values on material that is essentially nothing more than a TV movie-of-the-week. The “addiction is bad” message is so obvious and overwrought as to become banal in spite of Clayburgh’s impressive thespian chops. Still, even her nuanced and delicate moments are undone by ridiculous hambone acting as she flails on a beach, twitches spasmodically and, in several amazing scenes, flaps her arms like a histrionic chicken on its way to the chopping block.

The careful viewer watching this picture (or just reading the credits) will notice several actors and crew members who would go on to great things, among them two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest (The Birdcage), Daniel Stern (Very Bad Things and the first two Home Alone movies), and director of photography Jan de Bont, who would later shoot Die Hard and Basic Instinct, before graduating to the director’s chair with Speed and Twister, as well as belly flops like Speed 2: Cruise Control and The Haunting.

In the mental hospital, Clayburgh meets a young Joe Pesci, a fellow mental patient who invites her to accompany him to Uranus, for Gawd’s sake, with the promise of a stop for cheeseburgers along the way. Pesci had just made Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese, but his career stalled and he evidently picked up some fast cash for appearing here in a bit part.

Viewers will have to look fast for Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple, The Usual Suspects). Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful) is in there, too, as the cantankerous cancer-patient subject of Barbara Gordon’s documentary.

But this is Clayburgh’s show all the way. She chews it up like a hound masticating a hambone.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’m tellin’ ya. The transfer and the mono audio are acceptable. The disc is devoid of extras.

At times unintentionally hilarious, I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can presents the tragedy of addiction as screaming, bug-eyed madness, bordering on a parody of the very malaise it ostensibly sets out to condemn. Watch it on a double-bill with Reefer Madness, tonight, with someone you love.

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

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever

Beatles: From Liverpool To San Francisco
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2005 // 66 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Four working-class boys from Liverpool become musical icons and engineer a profound transformation of popular culture as The Beatles.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The short documentaries on this DVD follow the Beatles in their heyday, before clashing personalities, tangled business deals, and money squabbles broke up the band. The disc features rare interviews and newsreel footage, complemented by an informative narrative track and timelines that provide context and insight into the phenomenon that was Beatlemania.

Please be aware that there is not a single note of Beatles music in any of the documentaries; the disc serves mainly as a history lesson on the career of a fantastic rock band. This is not a document of the group's music, which is best represented on the records themselves and The Beatles Anthology DVD boxed set.

As an assemblage of television interviews and public-domain video clips, the disc offers a decent chronicle of the Beatles’ brief career (12 years if we begin with their formation; a mere seven years if we count only their halcyon days). The main documentary suggests that the Beatles' astonishing creative output was fueled by a grueling and ultimately exhausting work schedule. Perhaps this led to disillusionment among the band members. Allegations of fraud and thievery by managers also crushed the Beatles' innocence and apparently made them wary of each other when it came to divvying up the mountains of cash pouring in from concerts, singles and album sales, film deals, and an incredible merchandising effort that saw the Beatles’ smiling faces plastered on any commodity a fan might conceivably buy.

In the interviews on this disc, spanning roughly 1963-69, John, Paul, George, and Ringo occasionally reveal the strain of their celebrity. This is evident not so much in their words, but in their tones of voice and weary expressions. It's easy to believe that these impossibly young-looking lads would gladly shuck the burden of international idolatry and just focus on their music. Footage of barely pubescent girls screeching and swooning at any glimpse of the musicians is both astonishing and frightening in terms of the power four guys from Liverpool were able to wield — apparently effortlessly. The fearful aspect of these squealing kids, played out in scenes that would be repeated again and again throughout the world, is that at times the band members and their fans appear to be in real danger. One breach in the police line and possibly hundreds of people could have been crushed to death at any of the scores of concerts before the Beatles stopped touring. And given the hysteria associated with any Beatle sighting, it's not hard to imagine these musicians being torn to pieces by rabid fans.

This rare look at the Beatles as an anthropological phenomenon is perhaps the real value offered by the disc.

The producers of the DVD pose intriguing questions: "What was so special about them that they could fill concert halls and airports from Tokyo to New York with thousands of fans? Why did the dream die and what have The Fab Four left behind? In short, who were the Beatles and how did they conquer the world?" The answers remain elusive. The Beatles themselves seem bemused by all the fuss.

Supplemental materials include the 22-minute Beatles Across America Rockumentary, which consists of interviews with an odd mix of individuals, from a disgruntled DJ upset with John Lennon's notorious 1966 remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, to a Ku Klux Klansman in Alabama who grins behind sunglasses as he threatens to disrupt a Beatles concert. Again, the value of this material is that it demonstrates (but does not explain) how a quartet of working-class Britons could elicit such profound reactions wherever they went or by whatever they said.

And in the end, viewers might finish the documentary with a vague feeling of sadness. We're left with the unshakable sense that all John, Paul, George, and Ringo ever really wanted to do was sing their brilliantly crafted songs about peace, love, sex, drugs, and the transcendental power of rock and roll. Fame sometimes got in the way of that goal, as the documentaries on this disc demonstrate convincingly.

Still, they did it all and they did it well. Though it was devastating to their fans when the group disbanded in 1969, the band members had clearly said everything they needed to say as a collective. Their musical legacy is lasting because the Beatles remain far greater than the sum of their four parts. Four decades later, it seems clear that we will not see or hear anything as phenomenal ever again.

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

Monday, May 18, 2009

Big Chuck Heston Before He Was Moses…or Ben Hur

Three Violent People (1956) // Paramount // 100 minutes

By Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Here’s a B-Western with A-list stars.

Charlton Heston stakes claim to a horse ranch in Texas, marries a whore, and disowns his treacherous brother in the last film released before The Ten Commandments would finally make him a superstar.

A Bit of Plot…
Pretending to be a lady, former dance-hall harlot Lorna (Anne Baxter, All About Eve) charms and marries former Confederate cavalry officer Colt Saunders (Big Chuck Heston). They settle into a modestly happy life on his ranch, but carpetbaggers prepare to grab all the land as part of a twisted federal tax scam during Reconstruction. Saunders’s one-armed brother (actor-turned-novelist Thomas Tryon) wants to sell the ranch and collect his share of the inheritance. He betrays the family and threatens to expose Lorna’s shady past.

As the ranchers band together to fight the carpetbaggers and conflicting desires threaten to tear the family apart, Saunders begins to suspect his wife may be less than she appears to be. The climactic showdown features Forrest Tucker (years before he would enlist in television’s F Troop) and a young Robert Blake (In Cold Blood, Electra Glide in Blue).

Historical Context and Significance
Directed by Rudolph Maté (When Worlds Collide), this B-Western with an A-list cast never cranks up much excitement, despite the promise of the title. Most of the production was shot on soundstages and the Paramount back lot, which is glaringly obvious.

This is the last movie Heston made before establishing himself as a Hollywood icon. In two years he would race chariots in the title role of Ben Hur, and a year after that he would be curiously cast as a Mexican police detective in Orson Welles’s incredible Touch of Evil. By then, Heston’s place in cinematic history was assured.

Although The Ten Commandments was released a few months before Three Violent People, word-of-mouth momentum for Cecil B. DeMille’s final epic was slow to build. This was decades before saturation marketing and a 3,000-screen opening would become common strategy for stewarding would-be blockbusters. So when Three Violent People opened early in 1957, Heston was not yet a household name. A bit of research reveals that Heston didn’t much care for his costar Tryon but didn’t have the clout to change casting as he desired. The future spokesman for the NRA would have been better served by taking a closer look at the unsurprising script, which gives Heston little to work with. His character’s primary trait is volatility, which is handy for saloon brawls and shoot-outs. This helps alleviate some of the tedium during the long passages in between, but it doesn’t create a vibrant, memorable character.

Tryon was always more a pretty face than a great actor. Today he is best remembered for penning novels, among them the hugely successful Harvest Home and one genuinely terrifying psychological thriller, The Other. B-movie fans will recognize him as the extraterrestrial groom in the silly film, I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

Baxter will always be the 1950s babe with the vaguely disquieting smile. She could pull off guileless treachery better than any of her contemporaries, and that skill is put to good use here. It’s as though her backstabbing character Eve Harrington was transplanted from Broadway and left to survive on the dusty Texas plains, armed with nothing more than lethal seduction techniques and a willingness to tell one whopper after another. Still, all her thespian heat can’t rev up this standard-issue Horse & Oater.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’m tellin’ ya. Paramount was apparently so inspired that the studio forgot to include so much as a trailer on the DVD.

My praise is limited mainly to the digital transfer, which does justice to this rich Technicolor film. The Dolby mono soundtrack is clean.

Three Violent People hardly lives up to its title. Three Peeved People would lend greater truth in advertising.

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

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Salute to James Mason

By Steve Evans

James Mason would be 100 years old if he were alive today.

On the great English actor’s birthday, I’d like to highlight a quintet of his greatest performances, with the gentle suggestion that you seek them out for your own edification and enjoyment.

As an actor Mason was every bit the equal of Sir Laurence Olivier, but with half the ego and roughly twice the charisma.

Dig this cinema:

A Star is Born (1954)
The first remake of that hoary old chestnut about a rising ingénue, and the man who loves her and guides her career while bearing witness to his own fade from the limelight. The pain in Mason’s eyes is palpable as he sees his lover surpass him in public adoration. Co-stars Judy Garland.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
As Captain Nemo in this adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, Mason simmers with rage and madness as an intellectual bent on the destruction of a society he long ago abandoned. This is the best live-action adventure Walt Disney would ever make, with positively stunning production values and eye-popping Technicolor cinematography. Co-stars Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and an amazing giant squid built by Bob Mattey, the special effects genius who 20 years later would assemble an enormous rubber shark for Steven Spielberg.

North by Northwest (1959)
Mason plays the hissably evil (and apparently bisexual) Van Damme opposite hero Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic cold war comedy-thriller, still on the short list of greatest films ever made.

Lolita (1962)
As the eternally frustrated Prof. Humbert Humbert, Mason feels the torment of his unrequited lust for the titular prepubescent in this adaptation of Nabokov’s most famous novel. Peter Sellers damn-near steals the show in Stanley Kubrick’s daring (for the time) motion picture about sexual obsession. But it is Mason who brings an air of desperation and gravitas to this sordid tale, while achieving the impossible: we do not approve of his infatuation, but he makes us understand it.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Mason plays the benign angel opposite star Warren Beatty in this remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Beatty gets most of the screen time as a pro-footballer who’s killed before his time, but Mason makes the strongest impression as the put-upon angel who tries to explain things in the most patient and veddy British manner.

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

Trippin' Down Memory Lane with Jefferson Airplane

Fly Jefferson Airplane
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2004 // 111 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we are, we are.”

Such was the sentiment of late ‘60s anarchists and their Greek chorus, which included, among other groups, the famed acid-rock of the Jefferson Airplane. If the Airplane didn’t always seem clear on what they wanted to overthrow, at least they could lay down a unique sound with the soaring vocals of Grace Slick and Marty Balin. Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen wove complex leads around the vocalists with his serpentine solos, while rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner and bassist Jack Casady laid the foundation with drummer Spencer Dreyden and later, Joey Covington. When the band was tight, they were as great as anyone to emerge from San Francisco’s mid-’60s Haight-Ashbury scene. By 1967, they were proponents of the Summer of (Don’t You Want Somebody to) Love.

Three years later, the Airplane would champion social upheaval in the waning days of the Vietnam War, with raucous songs like “Volunteers” and “We Can Be Together,” but it was warring factions within the group that led to their implosion in 1973. Several of the founding members continued under the Jefferson Starship banner and eventually just Starship, but let’s not go there. Better to see and hear these icons at the height of their glory, flaunting their iconoclasm and — incredibly — infiltrating mainstream culture. It’s mindblowing to realize that the Airplane performed “Martha” — a hauntingly beautiful ballad drenched in LSD imagery — on a 1968 Perry Como special. The Airplane is also the only band to play the legendary trifecta of rock festivals — Monterrey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont, although only the Monterrey gig is featured on this disc. During the interview segments, members of the band talk about the chaos that was Woodstock and the tragedy at Altamont. No one seems eager to recall either show.

The video and sound are as good as can be expected from source material that is nearly 40 years old, although I got a note from the DVD producer that every electronic trick in the book was used to clean up the footage as best as could be done. Concert tracks have been tricked out in a Dolby 5.1 remaster, although the sound is thin and offers minimal sonic benefits to the rear channels.

Set List:

• “It’s No Secret”
• “Somebody to Love”
• “High Flyin’ Bird”
• “White Rabbit”
• “Martha”
• “Crown of Creation”
• “Lather”
• “House at Pooneil Corners”
• “Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil”
• “We Can Be Together”
• “Plastic Fantastic Lover”
• “Volunteers”
• “Embryonic Journey”

As nostalgia this is a good package, covering the Airplane’s hits and best-known songs, with an eyeful of hippie fashions and dance moves, as well as a generous helping of peace, love and understanding. The disc also gives viewers the useful option of playing all song selections as an extended concert, or interspersing the performances with interviews; some recent, some 35 years old. But don’t expect anyone to dish on the infamous infighting and petty squabbles that ultimately destroyed this group. Even the notoriously outspoken Slick seems to have grown up; she offers nothing but high praise for her former band mates and their status as rock icons (check out her now & way-back-when pictures, above right). Seeing the band members today is something of a shock, not so much to reconcile the sight of musicians in their 60s with their youthful counterparts nearly four decades ago, but to hear tales of their escapades and realize that these people actually survived the ’60s with their minds and ideologies essentially intact.

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

Thursday, May 14, 2009

From Manchuria, With Love

Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate, (1962 & 2004)

By Steve Evans
Opening Shot
Director Jonathan Demme defies expectations by delivering a top-notch thriller, updated to reflect contemporary paranoia. His film is a worthy companion piece to the classic 1962 original directed by John Frankenheimer, the grand master of cinematic intrigue.

A Bit of Plot…
During the Gulf War, members of a platoon led by Captain Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) and Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, The Sum of All Fears) are kidnapped and brainwashed. With no memory of their ordeal, the soldiers return to U.S. forces. Shaw is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A decade later, now-Congressman Shaw mounts his vice presidential campaign under the oppressive tutelage of his mother Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), a powerful U.S. senator and right-wing ideologue.

The Shaw campaign warchest is underwritten by Manchurian Global, a secretive equity fund focused on military contracts.

Marco and other members of his old platoon gradually recall details of their kidnapping, including murders and a mammoth cover-up extending to the highest reaches of political power in the United States. Vowing to uncover the truth, Marco must first convince Shaw that the would-be vice president is actually a programmed killing machine waiting to be set in motion by unknown controllers.

Historical Context and Significance
Learning of this production a year before its theatrical release in August 2004, I was predisposed to loathe Director Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate as another ill-conceived remake from the artistically bankrupt rubes who rule Hollywood. How could they improve on perfection? The late John Frankenheimer’s original Manchurian Candidate (1962) remains the ultimate political thriller; a pungent satire redolent with cold-war paranoia. Years ahead of its time, the original works superbly on multiple levels — as thriller, mystery, political satire, even as comedy if you’re paying attention. It is a poignant exploration of the psychosis produced by brainwashing, torture, and the psychological manipulations of a dysfunctional family, which may be the most devastating mind control of all.

Frankenheimer’s direction reflects the artistic sensibility of a profoundly intelligent man working at the height of his creative powers. Sadly, Frankenheimer would never again scrape the stratospheric heights of excellence that he reached in 1962 with this film, powered by a dream cast of Frank Sinatra as Bennett Marco and Lawrence Harvey as the programmed assassin Raymond Shaw. With screenwriter George Axelrod (who adapted Richard Condon’s 1959 novel), these men produced “the most poundingly suspenseful political thriller ever made” according to People Magazine. No argument here. Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s incredible satire of nuclear madness, is the lone film that even approximates the scabrous socio-political commentary of The Manchurian Candidate. Both were made within two years of each other.

Frankenheimer’s masterpiece mocks the far right as red-baiting dupes angling for any excuse to seize power. The film likewise ridicules the liberal left as flaccid and ineffectual. The great director once said that his objective was to scorn all forms of political extremism as equally moronic and dangerous; he succeeded beyond his wildest aspirations.

So it was hard to imagine that a remake of The Manchurian Candidate could serve any interest beyond commercial, much less touch the source material for timeliness and audacity. There were other reasons to worry that Hollywood was about to bastardize another classic film.

An undeniably talented director, Demme (An Oscar winner for The Silence of the Lambs) hadn’t had a hit in years. His most recent film, The Truth About Charlie, was a gawdawful remake of Stanley Donen’s classic caper comedy Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

But in revisiting The Manchurian Candidate, Demme redeemed himself. I was wrong to harbor such paranoia about his abilities and motivations in tackling this project. Now I’m inclined to be paranoid about the world he depicts.

That said, Demme’s film is not so much a remake but a clever re-imagining of key elements from Frankenheimer’s picture, updated to reflect contemporary fears about international conglomerates and the frightening influence these corporations wield over politicians. Once in office, their powers, to paraphrase a key line from the original film, “make marshal law look like anarchy.” All it takes is enough money.

Instead of Communists posing as right-wingers, the conspirators in Demme’s film are part of the U.S. military-industrial complex (Halliburton is the obvious inspiration), pulling the strings of conservatives and liberals alike. The villains do not hide in Manchuria behind the Iron Curtain of Communist China, as with the original film. They are hidden in plain sight, within the executive offices of Manchurian Global. Their objective is not so much power or influence — those are just means to an end. They want military contracts worth billions of dollars.

Denzel Washington takes on the Sinatra role of Ben Marco, whose Gulf War nightmares threaten his sanity. Marco knows something happened to his platoon in the Kuwaiti desert, and he begins to suspect that his former sergeant may be involved in a conspiracy for corporate control of the White House. Shaw’s mother, U.S. Senator Eleanor Prentiss-Shaw, plays every political card in her hand to get Raymond on the presidential ticket, setting the chess board in motion. Here, Washington takes a blessed reprieve from his slate of low-brow action films to play a tormented man who realizes with dawning horror that someone has been tinkering inside his brain. Schreiber turns in serviceable work as the arrogant yet strangely sympathetic Raymond, a clockwork orange assembled to seize power for his unknown handlers. Schreiber seems to be channeling Lawrence Harvey’s performance from the original film, and this sparks a distracting comparison. But Streep is the real show here, stealing her scenes and occasionally chewing them up in a sly parody of — indeed — could she be mocking a well-known former U.S. Senator from New York? In interviews, Streep has discouraged parallels between her character and the public persona of Hilary Rodham Clinton. Let viewers decide. Her Senator Shaw is ruthlessness defined. The good news is that Streep does not try to mimic Angela Lansbury’s career-defining performance as a power-crazed mother lusting after her own son, as we saw in the creepy, incestuous subplot of the original film. Streep’s work stands as a unique creation, distinct from the original yet no less horrifying.
As Senator Shaw’s political nemesis, Jon Voight handles the role of liberal Senator Thomas Jordan, whose daughter Jocelyne (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) once loved Raymond.

Dean Stockwell is perfectly cast as a corporate toady, greasing the skids between Manchurian Global and Washington, D.C.

Political junkies will delight in some of the cameos peppered throughout this picture. Cult film fans will have to look quick to catch a glimpse of Roger Corman, the famed B-movie producer-director who gave Demme his first break in the business.

The script by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris ranks (along with Sideways) as one of the most intelligently adapted screenplays produced in the weak year that was 2004. Knowledgeable fans of the original film will enjoy the sheer audacity of this tricky update. There is not a line of superfluous dialogue, not a single unnecessary word. This is tight, on-point screenwriting at its best. Demme lets his actors run with this rich dialogue, while the director fills his frame with subtle visual wit. Viewers are especially urged to scan the margins of Demme’s film, because the director likes to paint in the corners.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Technically, the DVD is nearly flawless, with only one fleeting video artifact. Reference-quality Dolby Digital audio comes in a choice of languages. A fair selection of supplemental material rounds out the package, including a lively and informative director’s commentary that shows Demme at the top of his form. The making-of documentary and cast notes are disappointingly brief at 15 minutes each.

The Contrarian View
Some will accuse Demme of copping out with a (relatively) upbeat ending, but that’s like saying you’d rather be ripped apart by barracudas instead of tiger sharks. Also, Denzel Washington doesn’t look much like Frank Sinatra, although he is a better actor.

Demme’s film and Frankenheimer’s classic make fascinating bookends around the last 45 years of U.S. politics. Each belongs in every discriminating film lover’s collection. The pair would make an outstanding double feature, and as such are highly, highly recommended.

Now let’s wrap it up before Manchurian Global sees this review and I’m forced to read the Riot Act.

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

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cap'n Jack Sparrow in Outer Space

By Steve Evans

Every now and again I turn back the clock a few years to a forgotten film. Sometimes the movie has been forgotten with good reason. Today’s review covers one of those films, one of the lesser pictures in the canon of one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.

Johnny Depp enjoys tremendous success both as swashbuckling action hero in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and as a thought-provoking actor in such films as Neverland, Chocolat and reportedly in Michael Mann’s upcoming gangster flick, Public Enemies, in which Depp plays John Dillinger in pinstripes and fedora.

But it wasn’t so long ago that Depp’s film career seemed less than a sure thing. For every Edward Scissorhands, there was a dud like Nick of Time. His script choices were inscrutable, prompting some to speculate that Depp would just as soon slum for a paycheck as deliver a wow like his spot-on performance as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s mind-blowing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the Criterion two-disc edition is the one to buy).

Today we rewind to 1999 – the last great year for Hollywood film, but a not-so-good year for Johnny Depp:

The Astronaut’s Wife
Written and directed by: Rand Ravich
Starring Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Joe Morton, Nick Cassavettes and Blair Brown.

The pitch: Rosemary’s Baby meets E.T. in this trashy exploitation flick apparently designed to scare the bejabbers out of pregnant women and bore everyone else.

Affecting a suthern accent, a bleach-blond Depp sleepwalks his way through the role of a shuttle astronaut who, while orbiting Earth, loses contact with NASA for two minutes. He returns to Florida…a changed man.

His wife, the lovely but bland Theron, senses something is wrong, even though she faithfully returns to her teaching job each day at the local elementary school. But all is not well. Depp’s fellow crewman, Cassavettes, in a glorified cameo, drops dead a week later at a party as his wife stares in horror. Did something happen to the astronauts during those two minutes of silence in space? Why, hell yes, we’ve got another 90 minutes to go.

[Side note Part I: Cassavettes apparently needed some quick cash to get on with his successful career as an independent filmmaker. He’s following in his dad’s footsteps: The late John Cassavettes also starred, from time to time, in some equally cheesy, low-rent movies (check out Two Minute Warning) to pay the bills in between his own independent projects. Side note Part II: the basic storyline of The Astronaut’s Wife was handled with much more suspense in The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and to about the same level of silliness as I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1955).]

Okay. At Cinema Uprising we would never reveal key plot points in a good movie: By the end of Act I, Cassavettes’ wife commits suicide, which does little to reassure Theron. Unfazed by all the sudden death, Depp picks the only sensible solution that can propel the plot – he quits his NASA job for a gig with a major engineering firm, packs up his wife, cuts out of Florida and moves to New York. This worries Theron even more, since she did the same thing with Keanu Reeves two years earlier in The Devil’s Advocate. In his new job, Depp designs amazingly complex aircraft for a military contract, raking in scads of green money. Pretty soon he’s kissing corporate ass at parties and doing an awkward bumpity-bump-hump-bump with his wife in public places. Next thing we know, Theron is taking a pregnancy test in the restroom stall at her new school. (As any would-be parent knows, those tests are supposed to be taken first thing in the morning. Or did Mrs. Astronaut drive all the way to work just to pee?)

Does it matter? Yes. In a movie already swollen with improbabilities, the incorrect administration of a pregnancy test might seem like a minor sin, but I disagree. People deserve more for their entertainment dollars than a movie that actively defies their intelligence. Worse, I’m appalled that a film would dare to exploit a woman’s greatest fear – that she might give birth to Webster.

Theron doesn’t have it quite so bad. The poor woman eventually gloms to the fact that she’s carrying twins. And Depp seems to take a preternaturally unusual interest in their safety. One of Depp’s former NASA associates tries to warn the expectant mommy that she’s carrying a heap o’ trouble, times two. Problem is, the doomsayer is played by Joe Morton, a character actor who gets killed in practically all his movies. Who’s going to believe him? Or the preposterous ending, with lousy special effects? And all this bidness going down while Theron acts like she’s swallowed enough Quaaludes that somebody ought to call poison control.

Right. Let’s wrap this:

  • Depp transforms into a cheap-looking special effect.
  • Theron gives birth to a couple of special twins.
  • There is at least one alternate ending on the DVD for anyone who cares.

Stoned, sedentary or fast asleep, The Astronaut’s Wife is a space cadet.

Rated R for language and uncomfortable-looking sex.

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

Friday, May 8, 2009

Hypersexed Teens in French Arthouse Flick

À Nos Amours
Criterion Collection // 1983 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Co-winner of the César (the French Oscar) for Best Picture of 1983. That's no guarantee of excellence.

A Bit of Plot…
Adolescent Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire, Monsieur Hire) deploys sex like a mousetrap to lure men and teenage boys to her bed or any other convenient, reasonably comfortable location. Her reckless promiscuity gradually takes shape as a statement of rebellion against an overbearing and vitriolic family, and especially her father (played by director Maurice Pialat). While Suzanne’s parents confront the harsh realities of an unraveling marriage, the teenage girl struggles with the meaning of relationships and the fundamental human desire to connect with other people. The sex is great, but the thought of real, emotional intimacy terrifies the young woman.

As her father tells her, Suzanne doesn’t understand that loving and the desire to be loved cannot exist independent of each other in a healthy individual. But Suzanne cannot comprehend the difference. “Everyone’s like that,” she tells her father. Suzanne does not realize that her father’s misery over a failed marriage has as much to do with his confused feelings about his nubile teenage daughter as the frustration of dealing with a miserable bitch of a wife.

A non-ending, not unlike life itself, heightens the vague sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction that permeates the film.

Historical Context and Significance
At this point casual observers might conclude À Nos Amours (To Our Loves) borders on that lowest form of human abasement — pornography posing as an art film. And based on my initial reaction to the picture, I’m not certain the critics wouldn’t be right, even though there is virtually no sex depicted in the film. Sex is either implied or the topic of post-coitus conversation, which in some ways is more uncomfortable to endure, hearing it from the mouth of an adolescent.

The thematic content kept gnawing at my mind. As the father of three young daughters, I found it heartbreaking to watch the young woman in this film make repeated and profound mistakes in her life choices, chief among them a voracious promiscuity with a succession of unworthy men.

So I watched it again. On second viewing, I began to perceive the complexity of this character study and started to appreciate the depth of personality that each actor brings to the film. This is not to say À Nos Amours is a great film. It is not. Although the acting is uniformly superior, the film is talky and static, perhaps even too overbearing to make an effective statement. But in its detached exploration of relationships and emotional politics, the picture delivers challenging, provocative cinema to the receptive mind. It just took two viewings for me to receive it.

The fact is, this film will frighten any sane adult trying to raise children. It is challenging enough to bring up kids in a social environment that assaults their senses with a relentless message that sex confers identity or a sense of belonging, and that casual couplings are not only natural but are inevitable (and even desirable) as a byproduct of the journey to adulthood. À Nos Amours, in part, depicts the consequences of those mixed social messages on adolescents. More troubling, the film illustrates how even the most dedicated parents, with the best intentions, can still mess up their children. That alone makes À Nos Amours worth watching as a cautionary tale against the dangers of complacency, the horrors of adolescence, and the vital importance of self-awareness.

Pialat, who was a painter before turning his mind toward film, also wrote and directed Van Gogh, which is composed like the tortured artist’s impressionistic paintings. This is an interesting stylistic departure from À Nos Amours in which Pialat goes for understated realism: handheld cameras, lingering shots, minimal montage. While Pialat will probably be best remembered for À Nos Amours, his portrait of the final days in the life of Van Gogh remains an absorbing film experience that illustrates the director’s versatility. Van Gogh would also make an interesting double feature with Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas as the one-eared artist. Pialat died in 2003.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Criterion delivers a superb print with crisp Dolby 2.0 audio and a wealth of extras spread across the two-disc set. Video and audio meet Criterion’s customarily high standard, although the stereo soundtrack, while clean, lacks sonic dispersion across the front stage.

A 2003 interview with star Bonnaire is perhaps the most revealing feature as the now-grown woman talks about her reaction to playing a hypersexual teenager. An archival interview with the director on the set offers insight into Pialat’s intent with the material, but the recent interview with filmmaker and writer Catherine Breillat is more illuminating. Her comments on Pialat’s film are filtered through Breillat’s own ideas on sexuality, female empowerment and familial dysfunction — all key themes of À Nos Amours. Breillat is an unapologetic feminist and real firebrand who has written or directed numerous films. As an actress, she played a supporting role in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. She also wrote the story and received co-screenwriting credit on Pialat’s film Police.

A 1999 documentary on À Nos Amours, archival audition footage and a sharp-looking 38-page booklet of essays and production stills round out the extra content for this two-disc set. This is a handsome package.

The Contrarian View
For the utterly prurient curiosity seeker with bare bosoms on the mind, Bonnaire was a very beautiful young woman who graces the screen often with her nude body. She was barely 16 years old when the picture was made. But chances are, the raincoat crowd won’t pony up $40 to see a naked teenager in an obscure French arthouse film. Perhaps they should. This is the cinematic equivalent of a free lunch before the preacher’s sermon.

À Nos Amours
is an unflinchingly honest tale of a girl’s sexual awakening as she struggles with boredom, confusion, and trauma on the cusp of adulthood. It is startling, sobering, and often painful to watch.

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

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Glug, Glug: Big John Wayne Rides a Riverboat

Blood Alley
Warner Bros. // 1955 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Powder your nose baby; we’re coming into Hong Kong.” ~ So sez Big John Wayne to his imaginary girlfriend.

Opening Shot
The Duke and a riverboat of anti-Communist refugees elude the Red Chinese in this mediocre action film set during the Cold War. Good production values, breathtaking scenery in Cinemascope, and the big Duke himself in mid-career cannot compensate for a weak and occasionally racist script, or the cardinal sin of casting Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), then giving her nothing to do.

A Bit of Plot…
Released from a prison camp in Communist China, Merchant Marine Captain Tom Wilder (Wayne, The Quiet Man) responds to a summons from a nearby village. Along the way, Wilder talks to his imaginary girlfriend “Baby” — a fanciful creation that may have helped him survive prison camp, but doesn’t aid his reputation as a reliable solider of fortune. The village elders want Wilder to commandeer a riverboat and transport all the villagers to Hong Kong, under British rule. American Cathy Grainger (Bacall) aids the villagers while she waits for word from her missing father, a physician whose outspoken opposition to the Communists has led to his disappearance.

Captain Wilder believes their downriver exodus amounts to suicide, although his habit of talking to his imaginary lover calls his own sanity into question. But ever the mercenary with a heart of gold, Wilder reluctantly accepts the job as skipper. When Wilder kills a Chinese solider who attempts to rape Cathy, the planned escape suddenly becomes urgent. He hijacks a dilapidated paddleboat as the villagers gather supplies for the 300-mile river voyage. Cathy and her Chinese friends declare him “one of God’s footsteps,” a life-giving miracle. With the Red Chinese in pursuit, Wilder plots a rough course to the freedom of Hong Kong, a journey that will take his passengers through the treacherous Formosa Straits, AKA Blood Alley.

Historical Context and Significance
By the mid-1950s John Wayne had amassed sufficient wealth and experience to reach beyond starring roles in westerns and war pictures. He decided to try his hand as a producer, which would give him greater control over his projects. Blood Alley became the first picture produced by Wayne’s independent production company, Batjac. The company commissioned a script by A.S. Fleischman, who adapted his novel about a shell-shocked riverboat captain who’s coerced into helping a noble cause — delivering Chinese defectors to the freedom of Hong Kong. Location shooting was out of the question, so Batjac production scouts identified coastal areas in Northern California to substitute for the Formosa Straits along the east coast of China. Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the film. Then the problems began.

A bit of research reveals that original star Robert Mitchum was fired from the production, following an argument in which he shoved a crewmember into San Francisco Bay. That forced Wayne and his production staff to evaluate casting options. Gregory Peck passed. Humphrey Bogart considered the script and could have co-starred with his wife, but he wanted $500,000, which would have broken the budget. It’s just as well: Bogart had definitively essayed this material four years earlier in his Oscar-winning performance as riverboat captain Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, a thematically similar yet vastly superior production.

Lacking a major star, Warner Brothers told Wayne the studio would walk away from their distribution deal — effectively halting the production — unless he played the lead. Running out of options, Wayne signed on as star to keep his fledgling production company in business. The film was completed and released on schedule, but it turned out to be a weak freshman effort from the novice producer.

Director William Wellman (Beau Geste) shows a flair for orchestrating action, but in quieter moments he relies on his actors, who can only do so much with an undernourished script. The dialogue has not aged well. Conversations with and among the Chinese are, by turns, sensitive and respectful, then racist in Wayne’s mimicry of their fractured English — intended as comic relief (of course).

The Duke essentially plays himself, with the added novelty of being slightly mentally out of whack. Bacall displays none of her legendary sultriness; she simply comes off bored in this underwritten role.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Warner Brothers delivers a quality package for a mid-level title. The digital transfer (from a “Warnercolor” print) is rich and luminous, with deep blacks and no noticeable edge enhancement of the Cinemascope framing (a sprawling 2.55:1 canvas). Extras include two fluffy featurettes and four badly-worn newsreels. The sound is missing from about a third of the newsreel footage. More useful (and entertaining) is the trailer selection, featuring seven John Wayne films spanning 30 years. The last one, a 1974 trailer for the cop thriller McQ, is especially curious, as this picture was an obvious attempt to create a Dirty Harry-type persona for the aging Wayne. That would-be franchise began and ended with this one film.

The Contrarian View
Wayne’s Captain Wilder talks to his imaginary girlfriend so often that this character gimmick becomes an unintentional joke, marring the film. I began wishing the two of them would go find a make-believe room where they could pretend to get busy. But when the implications of that scenario began to sink in, I was grateful Wayne just kept on talking, instead.

Like polishing mud, Warner Brothers presents a pedestrian action picture in a slick package with a nice set of extras. The disc is possibly worth a rental for Wayne fans, but only an obsessive collector needs Blood Alley on the shelf.

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lou Reed Live at Montreux

Lou Reed: Live At Montreux 2000
Eagle Rock Entertainment //123 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Note from Cteve: Here’s another in my recurring series of reviews covering superb concert DVDs. This one’s from the Live at Montreux series released by the cool cats at Eagle Rock. They produce terrific product at a mouth-watering price.

Opening Shot
Full-tilt rock-n-roll from the bleakest guy in the business.

Dig Lou Reed, Ladies & Gentlemen
Nihilist rocker Lou Reed jams on 16 of his lesser-known songs during a mid-2000 show at the Montreux Jazz Festival. This is another entry in the well-produced Montreux series of concert DVDs drawn from the famous festival founded in 1967. Eagle Rock does a commendable job of packaging these important performances at a reasonable price. The disc before us contains many precious gems for longtime Lou Reed fans. Better still, he’s working with his best musicians since The Velvet Underground imploded in 1970 from creative differences and bad craziness.

“You can’t beat two guitars, bass, drums,” Reed once wrote on the liner notes to his 1989 album New York, extolling the virtues of a lean rock and roll sound. True to his word, he gigs with a superb backing band grounded by Fernando Saunders’s pulsing bass, Tony “Thunder” Smith pounding the drum kit, and Mike Rathke on guitar. Surprisingly, Reed plays lead on most of the tracks, proving once and for all that his musical talents run far deeper than his 40-year rep as a killer rhythm guitarist and lyricist.

The Montreux concert was part of a world tour in support of the Ecstasy album, which was released early in 2000. They were midway through their tour that year in July when they took the stage in Montreux. The experience shows. They have the sets down cold and their playing is awesomely precise, ripping through some ferocious rock with pinpoint control. Listen to the methodical buildup and release of blues tension on “Tatters” — a heartbreaking (and breathtaking) account of a doomed love affair. In the midst of the pandemonium that climaxes the song, Reed calmly lights a smoke, takes a quick drag, and stabs the cigarette between the strings wrapped around his tuning keys. The band settles into the jam as Reed chops on his Telecaster, his face intense, deadly serious, like he’s ready to debate the Devil over the price of admission into Hell.

There are lighter moments. Reed gives a nod to the Rolling Stones as his band opens the show with “Paranoia Key of E” — featuring a Keith Richards riff reminiscent of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” They segue immediately into the caustic commentary of “Turn to Me,” complete with “Honkytonk Women” backbeat as ironic counterpoint. Throughout the show, Reed lets the music speak for him. The only time he addresses the audience is for a band introduction before laying into “Dirty Blvd.,” the first song of the encore. The band wraps the show, fittingly, with “Perfect Day.”

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Videography is sharp and imaginative, making creative use of a minimalist stage. Sound is uniformly crisp. Three audio options provide welcome flexibility on various platforms, from Dolby 5.1 for home theater, to PCM stereo for a satisfying experience on a laptop computer with headphones.

There are no extras, but this is a solid concert package, affordably priced and expertly recorded.


Reed and his band deliver essential listening for avid fans. The man plays on this disc like he’s got something to prove. Lou, point taken.

Set List:
• Paranoia Key of E
• Turn to Me
• Modern Dance
• Ecstasy
• Smalltown
• Future Farmers of America
• Turning Time Around
• Romeo Had Juliette
• Riptide
• Rock Minuet
• Mystic Child
• Tatters
• Set the Twilight Reeling
• Dirty Blvd.
• Dime Store Mystery
• Perfect Day

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Shane Black's Frantic Film Noir

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Warner Bros. // 2005 // 103 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“SeX. MurdEr. MyStery. Welcome to the party.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a description coined by influential film critic Pauline Kael (who devoted most of her career to writing for The New Yorker). After seeing a poster for an Italian film that translated into those words, Kael decided that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is the briefest possible way to describe the fundamental appeal of movies: a little romance, a little action (sometimes that’s the same thing). Action screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) makes his directorial debut with this bizarre film — heavy on dark comedy and bloody action, with a surreal flavor that will keep viewers off balance. For those who are game, it’s a hoot.

A Bit of Plot…
Small-time crook Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin, The Solist) bumbles his way out of a failed heist in a New York City toy store into an acting audition, where he’s immediately offered the lead role as a detective in a new movie. We know this because Harry supplies constant narration and throws flashbacks into the mix whenever he gets confused about what's going on or what he intended to tell us. His commentary is heavily peppered with sub-references, asides, and hipster chit-chat. Harry confesses that he's not a good narrator, but he's all we've got, so deal with it.

Having nothing better to do, Harry relocates to Los Angeles. Producer Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen, "LA Law") wants Harry to train for the detective role, so he hires a mentor — a caustic and über-tough gay detective, improbably named Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, Pollock). At one of Dexter's lavish Hollywood parties, Harry meets his dream girl in one Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan, Mission: Impossible III, and at right). In the department of small coincidences, it turns out she really is Harry's dream girl, as the two were childhood friends. Then: flash, bam, pow! The plot kicks into overdrive. We're going to hit the accelerator now, so keep up:

A day later, while helping Gay Perry on a stakeout, Harry and the detective stumble across a murder, which may be tied to Harmony's missing sister, who's come to Hollywood looking for fame. But that may not have anything to do with the case because more bodies begin to pile up with no apparent connection between them. Yes, and it looks like Harry is being set up to take the rap…but all Harry wants to do is get it on with Harmony—whew, that's a lot of plot. There's more. Two extremely nasty bad guys are slinking around in the background working for some unknown evil individual. Or maybe not. Is Gay Perry really Harry's friend or foe? Maybe he's just a mean-spirited jackass who likes to mock people. Is Harry going to survive Hollywood with or without his twice-severed finger? How did Harry get to be such an ace shot with that semi-auto? When is Harmony going to stop acting coy and fool around with Harry, already? How many more Percocets will Harry have to swallow before the case starts to make sense and his hand stops hurting so much? And, considering what happens the second time his finger is lopped off, does Harry really want it back?

This is self-referential pulp fiction for people who wish Tarantino would just shaddup and make movies. Writer-director Shane Black is working the same side of the street, but he clings tighter to the hard-boiled noir tradition. Tarantino takes only what interests him and inserts references to breakfast cereals. Tarantino wants everyone to think he's cool, although he reacts to praise like a puppy peeing on the carpet when its head is patted. But I get the impression Black doesn't give two shakes of a rat's ass what people think. Evidently, they didn't think much of his first film. And that's unfortunate because this is a unique piece of work, a real love-it-or-hate-it picture that viewers either "get" or they don't. If you smile at the idea of a detective movie making fun of detective movies while trashing all things Hollywood, then Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang belongs in your shopping cart.

Black (who also penned The Long Kiss Goodnight and turned in a brief supporting role in Predator), makes a curious directing debut with this picture. It's no classic action film, nor is it a failure. It's just…peculiar. At the risk of sounding hopelessly vague, he either tried too hard or not hard enough. The results are ultra-hip, super-cool, smart-assed, extremely violent, laugh-out-loud funny, and confusing as hell. Black's audacious film, which tanked at the box office, throws a knowing wink to those familiar with his bombastic style, but will also appeal to those who understand the classical noir tropes. There's probably too much inside baseball to appeal to mainstream audiences. Action film fans and noir cognoscenti will dig it the most. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang has since developed a cult following and found success on DVD.

Downey and Kilmer play off each other with ridiculous ease, like two tennis pros knocking the ball back and forth just for kicks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Kilmer is so deadpan convincing as a macho gay detective that you may have to remind yourself, hey, that's Val Kilmer. Monaghan is sexy as hell, but she's a lightweight actor. Since she's at least a decade younger than Downey, there's a plot quibble as well (they were childhood friends, remember?)

Black shows flair for staging action and outrageous violence. His set pieces are breathtaking both for their audacity and sick humor. He also likes to poke fun at noir clichés, but has the good sense to practice what worked in the 1940s and still works today: Virtually all the key characters are introduced at that Hollywood party, then Black cuts them loose to do their mischief in classic noir style. All the threads come together for a tidy and wholly unexpected conclusion.

If the movie has a dominant strength, it's Black's dialogue. No surprise, there. His characters prattle on in grand, profane style — sniping and cussing at each other in a fashion most elegant and sometimes overwhelming. I wouldn't mind if Black would settle down and concentrate on a story worthy of his immense talent with dialogue, rather than prancing around with all this smarty-pants hipster banter. It's funny, but all good things grow tiresome after awhile if that's the only trick in the hat. Still, the man puts words in the mouths of characters that grab our attention.

During a key scene, Kilmer's gay detective gets an urgent phone call from a character who needs help. Urgently. As in, right now. Kilmer's startled response is precious: "Why in pluperfect hell did you pee on the corpse?"

At that point, I was hooked.

The picture was produced by famed action maverick Joel Silver (Die Hard), whose personal wealth has been enormously enhanced by the Lethal Weapon franchise that Shane Black created. It will be interesting to see if Silver gives Black another shot, since his freshman directing effort wasn't a financial windfall for either of these players.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Video and audio are tight; no qualms here. The commentary track with Black, Kilmer, and Downey is breezy and informative, but mostly funny as hell. These guys had a blast making the film, and seem to be having a mighty fine time dishing on the commentary track as well. An amusing gag reel and theatrical trailer round out the extras.

I had a big time spinning this film, but I also watch a lot of movies so anything fresh and unique will pique my interest. I also understand that Black's brand of humor tends to attract a narrow audience who are willing to forgive his excesses for the sake of watching him score a direct hit. Black scores often; his characters slice each other to the bone with their words.

So when does too much of a good thing become bad? The answer is clearly a matter of taste. Some viewers will grow weary of Black's wise-ass characters long before Act II cranks up. Others will wander into Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang expecting another round of Riggs and Murtaugh shenanigans. And they'll be disappointed.

Black raises the bar quite high, then shows off by demonstrating how nimbly he can leap over it—and how often. This is certain to annoy some people. For the action crowd accustomed to formulaic plots populated with dim-bulb heroes (hello, gov'nah!), this noir satire may be too slick for its own good.


Here's a crime movie for people who live to watch crime movies. If Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, and Out of Sight are your idea of fun, then Black's venomous bon-bon will surely satisfy. It’s a ribald, raunchy, rockin’ good time.

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

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Saturday Night Fun: An "Old Dark House" Mystery

The Cat And The Canary: Uncut Director's Edition
First Run Features // 1979 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Where there’s a will, there’s a relative.” ~ From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot (or: why should you give a damn about this picture?)
Director Radley Metzger was renowned for shooting slick, elegantly photographed soft-core sex films in the late 1960s, later veering into hard-core. The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) is probably the best-known picture in his hard-core oeuvre, although the director's real talent was erotica — an entirely different beast. Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet is widely considered one of the most sensual and erotically-charged of all films. Possibly in a bid to go legit, Metzger took a break from those probing pursuits to co-write this script and direct an international cast in the fourth film version of The Cat and the Canary. The film features a sturdy ensemble, headlined by Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), Olivia Hussey (Death on the Nile), Edward Fox (Day of the Jackal) and Carol Lynley (perhaps best known for warbling “There's got to be a morning after” in The Poseidon Adventure). Metzger elicits good performances from his cast, considering the silly story and purple prose that passes for dialogue. If characters sound stilted, that’s only because a pornographer with artistic aspirations put the words in their mouths.

A Bit of Plot…
1934 England. A wretched, rainy night.

A sniveling family of snobs arrives at their dead uncle’s mansion, Glencliff Manor, for a reading of his will 20 years after the man’s death, as was his final wish. Via home movies (let’s just accept the notion that the wealthy could afford movie cameras in 1914), the dead man (Wilfrid Hyde-White, The Browning Version) speaks to his money-grubbing relatives from beyond the grave. As they watch his flickering image during dinner, the cantankerous old geezer taunts and insults them — accurately calling his kin a bunch of bastards and leeches — and finally bequeaths his fortune to lovely, wide-eyed Annabelle (Lynley). There’s just one hitch: all of the assembled relatives must spend the night in the mansion. If Annabelle dies or is declared insane within 12 hours, then the relatives must sit through a second film, when a new heir will be named. As one cousin observes, it's practically an invitation to murder.

While these avaricious types mull this development, an escaped psycho killer known as The Cat is roaming the countryside — heading for Glencliff Manor. This new wrinkle is confirmed by Hendricks (Edward Fox), the director of an insane asylum, who makes a curious entrance by crashing through a library window on the ground floor of the old mansion. He brusquely warns the dinner party about home security, then disappears into the night.

With all the pieces in motion, there’s nothing to do but beware of things that go bump in the night. Some of the assembled guests will not see the dawn.

Historical Context and Significance
Although this hoary “reading of the will” plot was done perhaps most memorably in Bob Hope’s comedy version from 1939, Metzger’s take on the material is not without merit. (What attracted him to it is a greater mystery than the plot itself.) Metzger brings wry humor to the stuffy and veddy British proceedings, poking fun at the manners and mores of the wealthy and those who desperately wish to be. This is all handled very tongue-in-cheek. Think of an Agatha Christie novel crossed with an episode of Fawlty Towers, or imagine the characters from the board game Clue all high on airplane glue.

The humor is often subtle and occasionally sophisticated: Characters toss off witheringly sarcastic remarks, punctuated by droll observations, general rudeness and laughable pretentiousness. This is not a criticism but a caveat, as the film is an acquired taste and probably not for viewers expecting blood and guts horror, low-brow comedy or the arty smut for which Metzger was most famous.

Blackman acquits herself despite a campy performance; in a few scenes where she is required to get catty, Blackman comes close to gnawing on a hambone, instead. Hussey is given little to do but look beautiful, which she does effortlessly anyway. Given the choice, Hussey would have been much better cast as the lucky Annabelle, while relegating the dull Lynley to a supporting role. Fox was fascinating as the relentless assassin in Day of the Jackal, but here he has little more than a cameo. With such a commanding presence, it’s unfortunate that the script did not accommodate a few more scenes for this great character actor.

Maybe we’re asking too much. As it happens, the cast is mostly slumming through material that had long since been filmed to death. The Cat and the Canary started life as a 1922 stage production in New York, followed by a silent film in ’27 and two versions during the 1930s — including the Bob Hope classic. Most of the possibilities had been played out. So Metzger tries to have it both ways and ends up with a fascinating 98 minutes of schizophrenia. He plays up the comedy in the first act, shifting radically toward horror and madness in Act Two, then winks at his audience as the proceedings turn completely crazy at the climax. A happy post-mortem brings us full circle before the credits roll.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The Cat and the Canary is presented in a widescreen transfer with a gorgeous color palette and sumptuous cinematography. This is a non-anamorphic transfer, albeit a good-looking one, probably owing more to the source material and Metzger's talents with camera placement, lighting and film stock.

Close inspection of the camerawork reveals many inspired flourishes, such as when a servant pouring coffee at dinner walks behind the movie screen during the reading of the will. She suddenly appears on the portable screen to pour the dead uncle a cup of coffee in the twenty-year-old home movie, then remerges on the other side of the screen, coffee pot in hand. Though it was a cliché decades before this version was released in 1979, there are several terrific lightning effects to illuminate shadowed faces and reveal horrific surprises at key moments.

The audio presentation is in the original Dolby mono, clean and relatively free of hiss. Dialogue is clear.

Extras include production notes and a slide show that chronicles the evolution of the story from its origins on the stage, to the 1927 silent movie, two films made in the 1930s and a selection of nine production photos from this 1979 version. The disc also includes four trailers of other films released by First Run Features; three were directed by Metzger.

This “Uncut Director’s Edition” is a misnomer, as there is no information to indicate what has been restored to the film. A director’s commentary is sorely missed (Metzger is still around’ he turned 80 earlier this year). Regardless, viewers aren't going to encounter anything beyond a PG rating, which could disappoint fans of Metzger’s racier work.

The Contrarian View
Wild shifts in tone may also be off-putting to viewers accustomed to contemporary comedy-thrillers that demand little of an audience. Half the pleasure of this film is listening closely to the dialogue, ripe with sarcasm and venom as bug-eyed characters roam the cavernous old mansion, stumbling across secret passages and generally acting foolish — considering there’s a madman on the loose.

As a whodunit, the unmasking of the psycho killer is handled rather clumsily, while the explanation for the crimes carries all the narrative sophistication and surprise of a Scooby Doo cartoon. That places The Cat and the Canary squarely in satire territory, as the thrills and suspense are too sparse to qualify the movie as a genuine mystery. Truth is, there are more spoofs than spooks in Glencliff Manor. But since the actors don’t take this too seriously, why should we? Given the narrowly defined appeal of the film and a list price approaching $30, the disc seems targeted toward highly selective collectors who know precisely what they’re looking for in an arid comedy-thriller.

The Cat and the Canary is an entertaining bit of English drollery that pokes fun at British snobs while having fun with the conventions and clichés of the mystery genre. As dry as a martini, the film is the cinematic equivalent of after-dinner sherry and cigars in a drawing room with witty, irreverent companions. The tale is as old as film itself. Because Metzger clearly understands this, he infuses the picture with as much satire as the thin story will support.

Those who enjoy “old dark house” mysteries and British humour should find this picture delightful. I’d like to see First Run Features start releasing proper anamorphic transfers of films in its catalog. Until then, everyone but The Cat is free to go.

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