Category: Uncategorized

Oct 13 2014

‘Horrors of the Black Museum': Herman Cohen’s Lurid Horror with a British Accent

Hammer wasn’t the only studio in Britain mining the vein of horror films that made them such attractive imports for American theaters. Before Amicus and Trigon arose in the 1960s, American producer Herman Cohen made a deal with British studio Anglo-Amalgamated to produce a pair of lurid horrors with British accents. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), starring Michael Gough as a crime reporter who takes too much delight in the most grotesque murders, is the first of them, arriving in theaters after Hammer had brought new life to old horror icons with full, blood-dripping color, lurid Gothic style, bodice-ripping sexuality, and villains who revel in their power.

'Horrors of the Black Museum'

Back in America, Herman Cohen took a different approach to reviving the old monsters for a new generation, aiming his film at the teenage audience by writing them directly into such low budget, high concept exploitation films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957), both of which became big hits for American International Pictures. Fresh off those successes, he headed for England and took a cue from Hammer, mixing continental class with grisly material and delivering production value (widescreen and brutally vivid color) and classy talent on a budget to AIP. Anglo-Amalgamated was not previously a horror studio—the biggest success for the British B-movie studio came from Carry On Sergent (1958), which spawned the lucrative Carry On series—but as the British distributor of AIP pictures it had successfully released its share of American horror films. Horrors of the Black Museum was their first homegrown horror.

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Sep 25 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Hangmen Also Die’ restored on Blu-ray and DVD

Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.

For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.

Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.

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Anna Lee

Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.

Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.

Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinemaphiled

Sep 17 2014

DVD: ‘Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide’

The term “video nasty” isn’t exactly a common phrase in the U.S. but in Britain it defines an era of nanny state censorship. The British Board of Film Censorship, or BBFC, determined what could be shown in British theaters and often forced cuts to content or outright banned films, but home video did not exist when the law was written. When the video rental business took off in the 1980s, films that were either banned or censored in theaters were available uncut on tape. The fears of kids being emotionally scarred or corrupted by these tapes were fanned from an ember to a conflagration of controversy thanks to a campaign led by social conservative reactionary activist and self-appointed moral watchdog Mary Whitehead. Members of Parliament, riding the wave of public hysteria, passed the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which forced all videotape releases to be passed by the BBFC before they could be rented or sold in the UK. It imposed an even stricter content code on commercial videotapes than on theatrical releases and, though standards have eased in the decades since implementation, the act is still in effect.

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is a three disc set anchored by the Jake West’s 2010 documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, a comprehensive history of the social hysteria and media coverage surrounding the call for censorship, the Parliamentary response, and the reverberations of the act.

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Aug 07 2014

Videophiled Classic: Brian DePalma’s ‘Phantom of the Paradise’

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Phantom of the Paradise: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) – Brian De Palma’s wild rock and roll remake of Phantom of the Opera by way of Faust, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and The Count of Monte Cristo plays like a decadent glam inversion of Jesus Christ Superstar. Paul Williams (who also wrote the dynamic, Oscar-nominated score and songs) stars as Swan, the evil record tycoon (in the opening scene he parodies Marlon Brando from The Godfather) who steals a rock and roll cantata from a sad sack singer / songwriter (William Finley), who transforms into vengeance-filled, hideously scarred monster in love with ingénue Jessica Harper. This outrageous, over-the-top fantasy, done up in real De Palma style (his love of split screen technique finds a new outlet in the video monitors of Swan’s voyeuristic headquarters), is a spirited satire with wild rock and roll numbers and his most sensitive love story.

Shout Factory’s transfer is from a new HD master and released under their Scream Factory imprint, and they do something novel with the Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition. There are so many supplements in this edition, most of them created for this edition by Shout and all of them new to American home video, that they are split between the two discs.

So you get the two exclusive commentary tracks – one with stars Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, and Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (aka the Juicy Fruits), the other with production designer Jack Fisk – on the Blu-ray along with generous new interviews with director Brian DePalma and star / composer Paul Williams and a short piece with make-up artist Tom Burman (focusing on the distinctive mask), plus 26 minutes of alternate takes (presented in split screen to compare to the footage used in the film) and seven minutes of outtakes (showing changes made to cover a post-production change in the name of the record company).

The DVD features the balance of the supplements. The 50-minute documentary “Paradise Regained,” which features interviews with De Palma, producer Edward R. Pressman, and stars Williams, Harper, Graham, and the last William Finley, and the 72-minute interview with Paul Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro were both featured on the British Blu-ray released by Arrow earlier this year and licensed for this disc, along with an archival interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton and a little 30-second clip with William Finley and the Phantom action figure. Also new to this release are interviews with producer Edward R. Pressman and drummer Gary Mallaber, a guide through the poster design by the artist’s widow, and Gerrit Graham reading a bio he wrote for the film’s press kit.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

May 07 2014

Blu-ray: ‘King of the Hill’

King of the Hill (1993) is the third feature from Steven Soderbergh, who jumped to the head of the American independent scene when sex, lies and videotape took the Audience Award at Sundance 1989 and went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes before getting a wide release in suburban multiplexes. His second film, Kafka (1991), wasn’t a success but it revealed a serious filmmaker who wanted to explore different subjects and genres. King of the Hill continued that tradition in that is was yet again a complete change of style and subject matter for the director: an adaptation of the memoir by A.E. Hotchner about life as an adolescent during the Depression. It was also his first studio production, made for the fledgling Gramercy Pictures, and it gave him the biggest budget of his career. He was able to craft a rich recreation of early thirties St. Louis as seen through the eyes of a hopeful boy in an increasingly desperate situation.

Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a smart, creative, generous high school kid who spins stories to hide the fact that his family is broke and living out of a hotel, where they are behind in the rent. To stay in his high school, a well-maintained school filled with affluent kids (Aaron is “a charity case,” as one of his affluent classmates describes him), he and his kid brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) have to keep up the fiction that they reside in a nearby apartment house. His dad (Jeroen Krabbé) is a salesman hawking “wickless candles” that no one is buying while he waits for one of his many applications to pay off with a better job. Aaron picks up odd jobs as he can with the help of Lester (Adrian Brody in his first major role), an older kid who looks over Aaron like a big brother. Lester knows the angles and hustles his way to survival and his mentorship gives Aaron the skills and strength to survive when he’s force to take care of himself.

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May 05 2014

Videophiled Criterion: It’s a Don Siegel ‘Riot’

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It may not have been obvious at the time but Riot in Cell Block 11 (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) was a perfect match of film and filmmaker. Don Siegel later made a name for himself with his gritty Clint Eastwood collaborations (not to mention is brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but was just a promising journeyman director when he embarked on this low-budget 1954 film, a project initiated by producer Walter Wanger after he served a short sentence for assault with a deadly weapon (he shot a man that he thought was sleeping with his wife, Joan Bennett). Riot gave Siegel a situation where violence was a defining element of the world and the people in it, a power always threatening to blow up and burn out control, and he used it to create a powder-keg of thriller with a message underneath the drama.

It begins with a newsreel-like prologue to establish its ripped-from-the-headlines bonafides—”Where will the next riot occur?” teases the narrator after showing us a succession of protests in prisons across the country—and then jumps into the fictional story of a carefully-planned riot in the punishment block of an overcrowded prison. (Phil Karlson used the same structure a year later for an even more explosive The Phenix City Story.) Neville Brand, a real-life war hero who made a career playing Hollywood villains thanks to his tough manner and scuffed-up face, is the ringleader of this protest, a convicted killer who has no agenda but to call attention to prison conditions. His fellow inmates are not so committed to his restraint, however, and the prison guard hostages are in constant danger of retribution from vindictive prisoners, especially Leo Gordon as a sociopath who has no interest in curbing his impulses. The warden (Emile Meyer) is not only sympathetic to their demands, he’s already complained to the state about the prison overcrowding and understaffing, lack of education and training programs for the inmates, and insufficient training for the guards, but the state politics demand a policy of no negotiations with rioters, which just raises the stakes and the temperature of the stand-off.

Siegel helms this film with both a hard-edged portrait of the violence and desperation of the situation and an intelligent engagement with the issues. Most of these guys have nothing to lose. Others are so angry that they riot in sympathy, whether it helps or not (in this film, it’s both). Brand holds the center as a both, a guy ready to follow through on his threats if necessary but restrained and far-sighted enough to hope it doesn’t come to that. He’s fighting the power on both sides: holding back what is close to a paramilitary response from the outside while trying to keep the volatile chemistry inside from combusting. He’s sympathetic to the prisoners without whitewashing their crimes or their violent nature. Much of the film was shot on location at Folsom Prison with guards and prisoners serving as extras and advisers, which gives the film added authenticity, but it’s Siegel’s direction that really lights the fuse. And Siegel is aware of the tension between social message and violent spectacle; he, like Brand’s character, realizes that it takes a big story to get people to pay attention to the issues. Siegel, however, is more interested in the personalities and the conflicts and the lengths to which both sides will go in this war.

It’s mastered from a new 2K digital restoration in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which has raised some debate; in some shots the headroom is distracting and the film looks like it should be masked to 1.66:1 widescreen, in others it looks well balanced and composed. Clearly the film was protected for both aspect ratios, but it’s not clear which the director’s preferred or intended format was. Features commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Berstein, audio excerpts from the director’s autobiography “A Siegel Film” and Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book “Don Siegel: Director,” both read by Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori, and excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Chris Fujiwara.

More Criterion releases at Cinephiled

Mar 31 2014

DVD: ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’

The title of the The Broken Circle Breakdown, a major hit in its native Belgium and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in the U.S., is a riff on the American country spiritual “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This is the story of a great love and a devastating loss, and it indeed confronts a breakdown, both figurative and literal, in the family circle. The song opens the film, performed by a bluegrass band in Belgium fronted by Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a one-time punk rocker who fell in love with American roots music. He learned to play the banjo because it’s the closest instrument to the wail of the rock guitar. At least that’s how he explains it to Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist who has turned her own body into a canvas for her work, on their first date.

That first date comes later in the film. Our introduction to Didier and Elise is in 2006 as they await results from a test that their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), named for Maybelle Carter of course, is undergoing. They are trying to hold it together to give their little girl all the strength and optimism they can muster. As this present-day drama unfolds, we slip back seven years to the early, heady days of their romance. It’s practically love at first sight and they form an instant connection; the way the flashbacks jump through their life together, it looks like she moves in the next day. Their personal harmony is picked up in the band, where she joins the ensemble in duets with Didier, then as a lead singer and guitar player. His stunned, defensive reaction to the news that she’s pregnant is the only sour note of their love song and he quickly recovers by starting a verse.

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Mar 22 2014

‘Kiss Them for Me’ on TCM

Cary Grant was nearing the end of his career when he made the World War II comedy Kiss Them for Me (1957) but the charismatic leading man was still one of the most debonair actors on the screen as well as a deft comic player. Kiss Them for Me, which he made between An Affair to Remember (1957) and Indiscreet (1958), leans more on the comic than the debonair.

Based on a 1944 Broadway comedy (itself adapted from the novel Shore Leave by Frederic Wakeman), it concerns three naval fliers recuperating from injuries in a Pearl Harbor hospital who finagle a last-minute shore leave (their first since entering combat) for four days of escape from all things military. Grant is the ringleader of the trio, the wheeler-dealer who secures the leave with nothing more than a verbal okay, arranges transport to San Francisco on a cargo plane, and whips up a party out of nowhere in a lavish hotel suite. “I came here to get drunk and chase girls and that’s what I intend to do,” he proclaims and he studiously keeps to his goal even while he’s pressured to make public appearances as the “war hero” to rouse the patriotism of homefront workers.

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Plays on TCM on Monday, March 24

Mar 19 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Long Day Closes’

Terence Davies, an actor turned filmmaker who directed his first short film in 1976, has made a mere six features since 1988, when he released his debut feature Distant Voices, Still Lives. Like his earlier shorts, Distant Voices was an autobiographical film about growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s, beautiful but somber and almost heartbreaking in its portrait of a family living in fear of its angry, alcoholic father.

The Long Day Closes, released four years later in 1992, isn’t a sequel in any literal sense of the term – none of the actors return and the names of the characters are all changed – but it nonetheless carries on the story of Davies family after the death of his father with the focus on a character absent from the earlier film. 12-year-old Bud (Leigh McCormack) is the youngest in a loving family looked over by an affectionate widowed mother (Marjorie Yates). A sweet, quiet schoolboy in love with the movies, he’s Davies’ stand-in in a film that offers a fictionalized reflection on what Davies described as the happiest days of his life.

Just like Bud, The Long Day Closes is in love with the movies. After a still life of an opening credits sequence that plays like an elegant tribute to the title sequences of films from the 1940s and 1950s, the familiar 20th Century Fox fanfare takes us into a rainy Liverpool alley plastered in posters. The fanfare segues into Nat King Cole singing “Stardust” as the camera glides down the alley at a graceful stroll.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Mar 11 2014

Videophiled: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Folk and ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’ Bluegrass

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Inside Llewyn Davis (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand), the latest by the Joel and Ethan Coen, was almost entirely overlooked at the Oscars this year. Perhaps that’s because, despite the astounding recreation of the Greenwich Village scene and an atmosphere and texture that you can almost feel through the screen, struggling folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is not a particularly likable guy. Which is not to say he’s a villain or even a bigger jerk than some of the folks around him, but while he’s not mean-spirited or malevolent (well, apart from that one time, and you’ll know it when you see it), he is insensitive and self-absorbed. Despite the beauty of his musical performances, he doesn’t connect with people. And he certainly doesn’t get what folk audiences see in the rest of the musicians struggling for an audience at the local folk clubs.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a road movie that circles back on itself in pretty much every way, a road to oblivion that Llewyn tramps in hope of finding his success, but is not a success story. Llewyn has been called “a loser” by some critics, but that’s not fair. His failure isn’t artistic, it’s commercial, and he endures the bad luck that afflicts so many of the hard-luck characters of the Coen Bros. universe without the comic bounce or dogged resilience that saves those few who persevere. That sly, sardonic Coen tone is more understated here, found in the little details of existence and the odd nuances of the offbeat characters (and John Goodman is truly one outsized, offbeat creation as a jazz musician with a heroin addiction) and the unusual situations that get amplified and echoed throughout the film. Just don’t expect the punchlines or big dramatic payoffs you get from other filmmakers. It’s not altogether satisfying necessarily, but neither does it let go when it’s over. The music, which T-Bone Burnett once again helped create for the Coens, is superb.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

BrokenCircle

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Tribeca, DVD, Digital, VOD), one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year (it lost to The Great Beauty), is devastating. And I mean that in all the best ways. The story of a passionate love rocked by tragedy, it is both joyous and anguished, celebratory and sad. It’s set in a subculture of bluegrass aficionados in Belgium (who knew?), where it is practically love at first sight for banjo player and singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also wrote the original play) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who soon joins the band as the sole female voice in the male harmonies. When their child, a little girl showered with love, is diagnosed with a deadly illness, they face the crisis in very different, unharmonious ways.

Director Felix Van Groeningen breaks up the timeline, introducing the couple as the try to hold it together while their daughter undergoes hospital tests and procedures and then flashing back to their early romance to contrast with the contemporary story. The structure gets more fractured as it continues, amping up the anxiety and the urgency of their ordeal. But while the film doesn’t flinch from the heavy toll it takes on Didier and Elise and their relationship, this isn’t all about ordeal. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens are compelling performers who invite you to invest in their lives and the band provides a community of support and love for them and their daughter. The music they make, all covers of classic bluegrass songs, overflows with joy, just as the romance that plays out in flashback. The triumph of Van Groeningen is wrapping the heartbreak and anger up in the love and the support and leaving us celebrating what was rather than mourning what’s lost.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Feb 24 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Successive Slidings of Pleasure’ in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ‘Trans-Europ-Express’

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Two films by novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet make their American home video debut this week. Best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years and Trans-Europ-Express (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD), a lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1966, was his most popular success and most audience-friendly production.

Three filmmakers (one of them played by Robbe-Grillet himself) board a train and begin working out the story for a film about drug trafficking. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (as illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised on the run can be said to be grounded.

Think of it as his Breathless, a pulp story refracted with his own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity. It’s a film that plays out in parallel, an illustration of the story being spun on the train, and Robbe-Grillet plays with the gimmick as scenes are constantly revised and rewritten by the trio, which sends the spy movie rewinding and twisting back on itself. But the director doesn’t make the equation so literal; multiple versions seem to spin out of the revisions and the fiction crosses over into the “real” world of the filmmakers. Call it quantum storytelling. Trintignant is at once Jean-Louis the private citizen (a man with a furtive fascination with pornography), Elias the character (who likes a little bondage in his prostitutes), and Trintignant the actor playing the character Elias, and the story is both a fictional construct and a “real” event, perhaps brought to life by the storytelling itself. Dead characters come back to life and the entire seems poised to begin again once the filmmakers disembark. Just like heading back into the pleasures of cinema stories and their mix of contrived twists and visual spectacle.

The 1974 erotic thriller Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD) stirs murder and sadomasochism in a kinky mix of sexploitation and art cinema.

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Feb 05 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Hunt’

Thomas Vinterberg not only spearheaded the Dogme 95 movement with Lars von Trier, he made people pay attention to it with his 1998 feature The Celebration (aka Festen), a searing family drama of raw emotion, primal rage, and healing solidarity strewn with dark humor and discomforting situations. The Hunt is not bound to the self-imposed restrictions of the Dogme movement but otherwise it returns to the same intensity of volatile emotions and social transgressions. It’s uncompromising and uncomfortable, a film that had me knotted up in anxiety yet unable to turn away, and it’s Vinterberg’s best film since The Celebration.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a dedicated teaching assistant at a pre-school in a small town in Denmark, and Annika Wedderkopp is Klara, the pre-school-age girl who adores this gentle man, a family friend whose warm presence is an escape from the tension at home. In a moment of childish pique after he admonishes her for kissing him on the lips (“That’s reserved for Mom and Dad,” he insists), she spits out some angry comments mixed with sexually-suggestive phrases overheard from her brother and his porn-obsessed buddies. She clearly has no idea what these words actually mean and there is no malicious intent, merely a child blowing off steam, but the ambiguous comments quite rightly lead to an investigation of possible child sexual abuse.

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