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FIR ’08 STOCKING STUFFER

By • Dec 21st, 2008 •

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For an economy that is supposedly affecting DVD sales, you wouldn’t know it to see the mega-disc-collections appearing in stores currently. As if the Fox Hitchcock Collection wasn’t enough to clog a DVD collector’s shelf, the new Fox Entertainment Murnau/Borzage/Fox box requires the construction of a new shelf entirely. I haven’t seen the inside of that box yet, and perhaps there’s a way, once opened, to deconstruct it so that it fits a normal shelf – but short of that, this $200.+ release may require some architectural rethinking. To honor Fox’s chutzpah, and at the request of foreign film societies, we’ve resurrected from FIR’s archives a 1974 article by William K. Everson which deals with Fox’s preservation efforts, including the work of Murnau and Borzage.

If, by chance, your friends’/spouses’ apartments aren’t quite large enough to encompass that volume, and yet we know that Xmas calls for a more substantial gift than a single platter, below are a few good choices for your consideration…

From SONY Pictures Home Entertainment comes a title we thought might never make an appearance, and it has arrived inside a most elegantly designed box cover – the Powell & Pressburger fantasy masterpiece A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (aka STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN). This was cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s first feature and, great as his body of work is, he never surpassed it. And that includes the likes of BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (recently restored and hopefully soon to come to DVD in its sparkling new incarnation) and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2. The British Technicolor is admirably recreated here. Subdued hues are infiltrated with myriad strokes and shades of luminous red. It’s a constant and delerious feast for the eyes. And the story’s not bad either. Powell (friend and) aficionado Marty Scorsese gives an American historical perspective in which he and his pals – amongst them Coppola and Spielberg – all loved the Archers’ films, but knew nothing about the filmmakers. David Lean, Carol Reed,Alfred Hitchcock — these they knew, but not Powell & Pressburger. In the decades since, Scorsese has done his best to remedy that situation for all of us. His editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, eventually married Powell. Also on the disc – a commentary track by historian Ian Christie, his delivery decidedly low key alongside the passion of the Scorsese, but it’s worth a listen for its many factual insights.

Also included on this double-disc edition is Powell’s last feature film, AGE OF CONSENT, made after his partnership with Pressburger had ended, released in 1969, truncated in the US, but seen here in its 103 minute form, and in a worthy transfer. Made outside the European studio system within which he’d functioned for decades, the film has an independent sensibility – including less glamorous lighting and more disrupting room tones, some of both of which Powell uses to his advantage. It also features a 24-year-old Helen Mirren (last year’s Best Actress AA winner for THE QUEEN) in her first performance as the island-bound Cora, much of it gloriously in the nude. Not since TARZAN AND HIS MATE, or THE MERMAIDS OF TIBURON (available on DVD from VCI Entertainment) has there been such a nude underwater swimming scene. Ms. Mirren, in a recently filmed interview, remembers the film the way one would a first lover. Also present is Scorsese, again making sharp insights in his brief intro/extro, and historian Kent Jones on the commentary track…

The earlier scenes are wooden and artificial, with oddly paced editing, leavened only by the presence of quirky Australian actor Frank Thring (THE VIKINGS, BEN-HUR, KING OF KINGS, EL CID, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME). After disgruntled artist Bradley Morahan (James Mason) retreats to the Great Barrier Reef, the tone finds itself and stays put. It’s a delightfully rambling treatise on an artist’s obsessive personality – and in that way a statement by the director no less personal than the one that got him in trouble with PEEPING TOM. Mason co-produced with Powell, and I sense that it was personal for the actor as well – his THE HORSE’S MOUTH. Mason was sixty at the time, and his relationship with the supposedly-barely-legal Cora was pushing the envelope as much as the nudity. (Makes one wonder where Clint Eastwood’s BREEZY has been hiding). Powell and Mason yearned to work together again on a version of THE TEMPEST, some aspects of which are evident in this endeavor.

An aside: you know how sometimes there’s an information sheet adhered to the back of a DVD box by a dab of rubbery glop, which you slowly remove once you’ve unpacked the box? Well on this sheet there’s a photo of Helen Mirren in which she looks more stunning than she does in the actual film. So don’t be so quick to pull it off and trash it.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK – THE PREMIERE COLLECTION
Recommendation by Glenn Andreiev

20th Century Fox’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK – THE PREMIERE COLLECTION is an amazing treat for the Hitchcock fan, and essential for all of us who love great movies! The first of the eight films in the set is the silent 1926 THE LODGER, Hitchcock’s debut exercise in suspense cinema. This tale of a mysterious, cloaked tenant who may be a depraved sexual serial killer is an opportunity to see Hitchcock begin using his beloved cinematic trademarks. This lodger turns out to be a victim of mistaken identity; the police tracking him are fearful, and there’s a young women who places herself in horrid danger to save him. The film ends with the first climatic Hitchcock chase. Before this box set, those wanting to see the film, directed by the then 27-year old Hitchcock, had to settle for contrasty public domain dupes, usually made off of already-battered 16mm prints. One would think Hitchcock filmed THE LODGER with an elevator security camera! Here we get a beautifully restored LODGER, bursting in clarity, with gorgeous blue and red tinting, and that welcome chilling sense of dread that Hitchcock would build on in later years. The LODGER disc comes with great extras, one of which is “Hitchcock 101”, a short wherein Hitchcock’s grand-daughter tells of taking a college course on her grand-dad’s films – and she never told her professor who her famous grandpa was!

Others on this pristine collection are: SABOTAGE, YOUNG AND INNOCENT, REBECCA, LIFEBOAT, SPELLBOUND, NOTORIOUS, and THE PARADINE CASE.

To read the rest of Glenn’s in coverage…



THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB PRESENTS: ANNETTE
DVD review by Oren Shai

This new addition to the excellent Walt Disney Treasures series collects the full 20-episode ANNETTE serial as it aired in the 1957-1958 season of The Mickey Mouse Club. After a slow start, ANNETTE soon drags you into a world of nostalgia, wishing you could get a shake at a malt shop, or take a hayride on the way to a BBQ, singing Disney’s greatest hits. ANNETTE’s vision of wholesomeness seems as if it may have been nostalgic even for those who watched it when it originally aired, as it obviously reflects the Disney 1950s vision of America, more then the country’s social realities.

ANNETTE stars Walt Disney’s favorite, and only, hand-picked member of the Mickey Mouse Club, Annette Funicello, as a dark-skinned farm girl who moves in with her aunt and uncle in an all-white, middle-class American suburb. She soon finds a friend in the class hunk, Steve, and a nemesis in his rich, snotty girlfriend, Laura. Other characters include Jet, a farm girl who is not a member on the cool-crowd, and Steady Ware, an always-hungry, dancing-pro, loud-mouthed youngster who hangs out with the older teenagers. Steady, holding up a giant, raw steak and telling the girl obsessed with him to beat off, is a sight to be seen. This lightweight soap is the closest live action could get to an Archie comic book (certainly more then ARCHIE: TO RIVERDALE AND BACK AGAIN, 1990).

If a person can authentically and realistically posses the Disney magic, it is Annette Funicello. There isn’t a shred of negativity throughout her career, and always with the most sincere intentions. From the Mickey Mouse Club through her roles in Disney movies and the American International Pictures BEACH PARTY series, she encompasses the idea of the ‘American Sweetheart’ more then any other. Her charm is still irresistible in her last feature film role as Annette in BACK TO THE BEACH (1987), but how could you ever resist the girl who inspired Paul Anka’s ‘Puppy Love’?

The DVD features 2 full episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club (the debut and concluding episodes of her serial) and 2 featurettes: Produced in 1993, “Musically Yours, Annette” looks at Annette’s musical career and the creation of her unique sound. “To Annette, With Love” is a loving tribute featuring some of Annette’s friends and her husband. The set truly does right by Annette, and is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

DR. SYN: THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH, sits waiting in another Disney tin, on two discs, one containing the three-part TV presentation, the other, the tightened, theatrical feature. As Disney maven Leonard Maltin rightly explains, some degree of nuance is lost in condensing the series to a little over an hour and a half, though he praises the editing in the shorter version. You’ll find yourself in a conundrum when you watch them: the shorter piece is compressed, sometimes to its detriment, but it moves quickly, whereas the three-part version moves slowly enough, at times, to lose narrative focus. I’m for the alacrity of the condensed version.

Maltin also acknowledges Hammer Films’ take on the same historical story – 1962’s DR. CLEGG, starring Peter Cushing. What he doesn’t mention is how Hammer-esque the 1963 DR. SYN is, even replicating some Hammer musical ideas in the score. Of course Disney had more money to lavish on its productions than Hammer ever dreamed of spending, and so this is a particularly stunning movie, with dazzling day-for-night sequences, a terrific, theme-song driven title montage, and a fine cast, featuring Patrick McGoohan, who had a clipped way of delivering dialogue, as he does here, but as his alter-ego, The Scarecrow, he ramps it up a few notches, barking out his ultra-clipped dialogue like a burp-gun. Others who excel in the cast are Michael Hordern and Geoffrey Keen. James Neilson, very much a TV director, and at that very much a Disney in-house director, does an adequate job with atmosphere. The editing in the feature version does the rest.

2009 will see FIR’s tardy entrée into the esoteric world of BLURAY, but that doesn’t keep us from mentioning the medium a month early: Disney’s BluRay release of all three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films is a really neat Stocking Stuffer. Though the surprise success of the series was due, without doubt, to Johnny Depp’s fey interpretation of the lead character, he was supported with the most amazing make-up and CGI effects, both of which beg for the heightened detail of BluRay to strut their stuff, in particular the maelstrom sequence which, for me, was the best use of Special Effects in its year, and must be seen in that format to be believed.

From BBC Video comes a three-disc collection: KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC. On the cover, Russell strikes a pensive pose, no doubt contemplating further sensational imagery he can perpetrate on an unsuspecting public. These six films, representative of his BBC work, are in some quarters considered for Russell what the Mutual shorts were to Chaplin. They show the artist finding himself, and at the same time creating his best work…or much of it.

Certainly SONG OF SUMMER (1968) fits that description. It is a somber B&W meditation on obsession, selfless devotion, artistic inspiration, and destructive egotism. Russell regular Max Adrian plays Frederick Delius, crippled and in need of a slave, who appears in the form of cinema pianist Eric Fenby (the film is based on his autobiography). It is a painful, claustrophobically controlled feature. The only Russell theatrical feature that comes near it in tone is SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972, currently unavailable on DVD). And it is a unique work of art, even among the many films about composers directed by Russell himself.

Oddly, this version, and one presented on a single disc several years ago by The British Film Institute, are different cuts, and neither of them are the cut originally aired, and which still exists on 16mm rental prints (a market that sees less and less commercial viability nowadays). I’m assuming the rights to footage from Laurel and Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST was not originally licensed for home video, and so had to be deleted. But the two releases also start with different shots? And to further complicate the issue, the BFI DVD release is smooth and creamy in its look, while the new BBC release is contrasty and harsh – aggressively different visual presentations, and I couldn’t tell you which was Russell’s intent. They both work, but accentuate different emotional attitudes in the narrative. I had to keep both.

ELGAR (1962) is 54 minutes long, a good documentary which was apparently more radical in its day (the box cover claims he was the first filmmaker to use re-enactments, and in his interview on disc one, he affirms this), tracing the life of the composer, who was recognized very late in his desperate career, always teetering on the verge of poverty. There’s good archival footage and still photos, all set to his music. And long, sensuous B&W tracking shots of his time in the country as a boy, which would carry him through his life, past great depressions and professional set-backs.

Others in the collection are THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965 – with Oliver Reed and Vladek Sheybal), ALWAYS ON SUNDAY (1965), ISADORA: THE BIGSEST DANCER IN WORLD (1966) – a rambunctious reverie on Isadora Duncan which far out-passions Karel Reiz’s elegant but sterile version, made the same year, with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. DANTE’S INFERNO (1967), with Oliver Reed (another Russell regular) as poet/painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And there are special features, such as an 81-year-old Russell sitting outdoors on a park bench, commenting animatedly about his early work, while we are treated to fabulous footage of him at work in his BBC days, the footage looking as if he were in one of his own films. There is much Russell yet to make its way to DVD, but this is a wonderful, rewatchable dose of his output, and it should be owned.

On October 25th, we lost writer/director Gerard Damiano, aged 80. A major footnote in film history, he was the director of the first porno films to go mainstream in the early 70s. DEEP THROAT (1972) was distinguished by some smart editing, and THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES (1973) was a hard-core version of “No Exit”. Both films therefore had marketable pretentions of class, allowing the public to cross the X-barrier and see them without recrimination. DEEP THROAT made an estimated $600 million dollars.

A year after these milestones, I was working for Great Scott, a PR agency, and was put in charge of running the only (to my knowledge) Academy Award campaign for a porno film – Gerard Damiano’s MEMORIES WITHIN MISS AGGIE (1974). It was a miserable little piece of celluloid, but with touches of Ingmar Bergman in the characters’ behavior, and in the cinematography, thus, once again, giving the director’s work a veneer of respectability (on IMDB it notes that the film opened on July 8th in Sweden). What it really delivered, however, was an appalling vision of sex, and of the human body. I begged Boris Kaufman, the man who shot ON THE WATERFRONT, then in his 80s, not to come to the screening I’d set for Guild members. I didn’t offer quite the same advice to Tony Randall, who showed up with his coat pulled over his head.

One of the few articulate advocates of sexuality in the arts was Al Goldstein. (He and my brother Lewis had been the two outspoken members of an advanced philosophy class at NYU.) Goldstein found his calling, creating the publication Screw Magazine, which incurred its share of obscenity lawsuits, each of which Goldstein battled in the courts, and in the pages of his paper, winning some landmark cases, and hemorrhaging money in the process. Decades later, when Goldstein was penniless and his professional belongings were about to be either sold off or destroyed, Bill Lustig (owner of Blue Underground, a cherished DVD label) bumped into the former editor, who ended up working at the 2nd Avenue Deli in lower Manhattan, and learned that the entire collection of tapes of Goldstein’s cable show ‘Midnight Blue’ – representing the years 1975-2002 – were among the articles in a warehouse about to be destroyed. Bill struck a licensing deal with Goldstein for the tapes, which saved the show for posterity, and out of these countless hours, he has pieced together four feature-length DVDs (each running two hours), compilations of ‘Midnight Blue’ highlights, which are packaged in one collection for your viewing pleasure.

The fifth DVD in the boxed set is a feature doc – PORN KING – which displays the arc of Goldstein’s career, brought down in the end by his own self-destructive nature. This collection is not only valuable for historical purposes, but for its many pleasures. Guests such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, O.J. Simpson, Russ Meyer and Deborah Harry make appearances, and the work of porn pioneers such as Harry Reems, Georgina Spelvin, Marilyn Chambers, and Annie Sprinkle (who increased her professional options by taking classes at The School of Visual Arts) are on display. And throughout it all, Goldstein’s irreverent personality sets the tone. The titles of the compilations discs are: ‘The Deep Throat Special Edition’, ‘Porn Stars of the 70’s’, ‘Celebrities Edition’, and ‘Freaks & Geeks.’ Also included in the box is a sweet little booklet featuring a history of Screw Magazine along with reproductions of several of its covers, including the one done by R. Crumb, who also appears in the ‘Celebrities Edition’ DVD.

From Kino comes THE GRIFFITH MASTERWORKS COLLECTION, VOLUME 2

This includes several of Griffith’s features we’ve been really pining for, such as WAY DOWN EAST (1920), which, like his epics of the period, ran a staggering 149 minutes. Each of these features include many supplements, in this case a score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, notes on Lottie Blair Parker’s original play, photos of William Brady’s 1903 stage version, and a clip of the ice flow sequence from the Edison Studio’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.

The other features and shorts on this five-disc boxed set are: SALLY OF THE SAWDUST (1925 – D.W.Griffith & W.C. Fields? And with an intro by Orson Welles), THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE (1914 – 84 mins), EDGAR ALLEN POE (1909, 7 mins), ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930, 90 mins, ‘talking’), and THE STRUGGLE (1931, 87 mins, also ‘talking’). The difference between ABRAHAM LINCOLN and THE STRUGGLE is major, and it seems clear that if he’d had another few shots at it, he might have finally adapted to the ‘talkies’, but it didn’t happen. Uneven, to be sure, THE STRUGGLE has some powerful scenes, and it features one of the very few performances by the extremely exotic Zita Johann.

After a bad experience with Karl Freund on THE MUMMY (1932) she ditched Hollywood, a loss for the film capital, and for us. She doesn’t have the big emotional role here, sadly, but she’s still mesmerizing to look at.

And the plum in the pudding is a near three-hour documentary on the life and career of the director: D.W. GRIFFITH: FATHER OF FILM by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. Brownlow, for the one or two of you who don’t know, is the world’s leading film historian, in part because of his remarkable archeological digs into the remnants of motion picture history, and equally for his filmmaking and literary skills. His docs are passionate, cinematic, and bring the shadows of the silent era to life for us. As do his books. ‘The Parades Gone By’ is still one of the ten greatest tomes on cinema history.

BOOKS:

UNFILTERED: THE COMPLETE RALPH BAKSHI.

This coffee table book from Universe, a division of Rizzoli International Publications, is a work of art depicting the work of a major artist in the field of animation. Bakshi, a gifted, difficult artist, has had a rewarding career and often a ground-breaking one. Best remembered for FRITZ THE CAT, a sweet translation of the R. Crumb comics, his work spans many genres within the animation field. More often autobiographical (or at least ferociously personal) than not, his best may be AMERICAN POP, but if so, it is followed closely by HEAVY TRAFFIC, COONSKIN, WIZARDS, and HEY GOOD LOOKIN’ (yet to find its way to DVD!!)

The book is a masterpiece of design, copiously illustrated with full color reproductions of not only film frames, but sketches, doodles, storyboards, etc. It’s informative, outrageous, and sexy. The Herculean task of assembling this book goes to Jon M. Gibson & Chris McDonnell. Quentin Tarentino does a Foreword, but Bakshi gets the last word.

CHEAP SCARES! LOW BUDGET HORROR FIMMAKERS SHARE THEIR SECRETS, by Greg Lamberson. From McFarland.

Greg Lamberson is nothing if not renaissance prolific. He’s a novelist (JOHNNY GRUESOME), a screenwriter (SLIME CITY), a film director (NAKED FEAR, UNDYING LOVE) and producer, a promoter, a horror website publisher/editor (FearZone.com), a columnist. He’s everywhere in this country at once, hawking his work and churning out new books or articles during breaks from his horror convention table signings. Did I hear he was going toe-to-toe with Caroline Kennedy for the Senate seat? Maybe not, but why would I not be surprised. And he helps raise a lovely little daughter simultaneously with all this.

‘Cheap Scares!’ is a terrific overview of the many and terrible obstacles awaiting the neophyte filmmaker on his journey through the process. It’s organized and written by Greg, and by interviews he’s conducted with key figures in the low-budget end of the genre, including Larry Fessenden, Scooter McRae, Brett Piper, James Lorinz, Paige Davis, Stephen Biro, and…alright, so I’m included, so what? I should have probably relegated this review to someone else at FIR, right? But hey, it’s Christmas, it’s my gift to all of you. Check it out.

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