Columns, Holiday Specials

FIR’S CHRISTMAS SEASON COLUMN 2016-2017

By • Dec 21st, 2016 •

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It’s that celebratory season, before and after Christmas and New Year’s, when we go out on forays to find the best DVDs and BluRays worth going the extra bucks for. Here are some:

MOTOWN 25 – YESTERDAY – TODAY – TOMORROW (StarVista & TimeLife.com) 2016. 975 mins.

Supplementals: Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder rehearsal footage. Roundtable with Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams, Duke Fakir, etc. Over 25 additional interviews.

9 featurettes. 48-page book. Extended version of the Concert.
Executive Produced by Suzanne de Passe. Produced by Don Mischer and Buz Kohan. Directed by Don Mischer. Musical Director – Smokey Robinson. With: Dick Clark, The Commodores, Jose Feliciano, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Jermaine Jackson, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, Linda Ronstadt, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Billy Dee Williams, Stevie Wonder and Berry Gordy.

Originally presented on Friday, March 25th, 1983 at The Pasadena Civic Auditorium, California, this is an important and highly charged celebration of the Motown Sound. It’s a wonderful show, judiciously trimmed to its current running time (elsewhere on the discs you can see and enjoy what was removed).

The high mark has to be Michael Jackson doing ‘Billie Jean,’ and introducing the Moon Walk. When Diana Ross shortly thereafter makes her entrance from the back of the auditorium, it was meant to be the evening’s topper, but Michael Jackson had usurped that moment from her. Not that she wasn’t great, but what James Brown did to the Rolling Stones on The TAMI Show, that’s what Michael did to Diana.

Ironically, the most baffling moment of the evening for me was the audience’s reaction to Jackson’s Moon Walk debut. I expected to see fans fainting in the aisles, but their reaction sounded almost subdued. Maybe it was just too much to fully grasp at the moment it happened?

The sparkling box containing the booklet and two discs is gorgeous, by the way, the loveliest packaging of the season. And the copious extras make this release as important as it is entertaining.

THE MARX BROTHERS SILVER SCREEN COLLECTION (Universal) BluRay.

THE COCOANUTS (1929 – 94 mins), ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930 – 99 mins), MONKEY BUSINESS (1931 – 78 mins), HORSE FEATHERS (1932 – 68 mins), DUCK SOUP (1933 – 69 mins).

Supplementals: The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos. Five new feature commentaries. Today Show interviews with Groucho, Harpo and Bill Marx. The Marx Brothers: From Vaudeville to Hollywood.
Directors: Robert Florey, Joseph Santley, Victor Heerman, Norman Z. McLeod, Leo McCarey.
Screenwriters: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, S.J. Perelman, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Will B. Johnstone, Arthur Sheekman. With: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Margaret Dumont, Thelma Todd, Kay Francis, Lillian Roth, Edgar Kennedy, Louis Calhern.

Chatting with restorationist Robert Harris recently, I was made aware of just how massive a project this Marx Bros Collection was, home theater people literally scouring the world for source material. I’d certainly been impressed by the quality of the films – far sharper than the bulky DVD release several years ago. But I’d gotten caught up with lamenting the fact that Universal had been unable to locate the clipped footage from HORSE FEATHERS, always thought to have been purple in nature since the scene takes place in sexy Thelma Todd’s boudoir. Personally, I’m not sure that was the reason for the snips, which fall awkwardly throughout the scene, but it appears now that we may never know the truth. Further on that subject, film critic F.X Feeney delivers a wonderfully informative commentary on HORSE FEATHERS, even noting that he found a paystub in the Paramount archives for four hundred dollars to Bus Berkeley!, but when it comes to the hacked-up scene, he has nothing to offer. When you don’t know why, perhaps it’s best not to speculate.

These are the five Paramount films made in the late twenties and early thirties featuring not only Groucho, Harpo and Chico, but also Zeppo, who apparently resented being treated like a straight man (though his musical numbers are quite good) and dropped out of the series after DUCK SOUP. Some have said that he was actually the funniest of the brothers, so what exactly did they have against him, to constantly cast him in these flat, unrewarding roles? In his place, the later MGM films added plodding, non-comedic love interests, reducing the Brothers’ anarchic power. I prefer Zeppo, even in his emasculated form.

I teach History of Comedy at The School of Visual Arts, and when I do my class on the Marx Bros, I show clips rather than whole films. Of all their great set-pieces, the one that really sells the students (who reject B&W out of hand, let alone films from the 20s and 30s) (and 40s and 50s) is the ending of DUCK SOUP, the outrageous battle sequence, with Groucho’s wardrobe miraculously changing every several shots into attire from a different era, and with baboons and dolphins responding to his call for help. I don’t think they were trying for satire here so much as delicious chaos. And as such it’s peerless.

LONE WOLF AND CUB (Criterion)

Six feature films: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1972, 83 mins.), BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX (1972, 81 mins.), BABY CART TO HADES (1972, 89 mins.), BABY CART IN PERIL (1972, 81 mins.), BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS (1973, 89 mins.), and WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL (1974, 83 mins.).

Supplementals: SHOGUN ASSASSIN (the1980 re-edited combination of the first two films, treated with undo respect by Criterion), an interview with the author of the mangas on which the series is based. A 2005 doc on the creation of the series. An interesting documentary on the making of samurai swords. Interviews with others either involved with the features, or commenting on them from an historic perspective.

In 1980 the first two films, melded at breakneck speed into a conjoined feature, was all I could find to look at, and looking at it was painful. Grain varied, night scenes were mistimed, and the story was unfollowable. But the tumult of action scenes was heady.

Now we get them uncompressed, and with excellent transfers, although the DP clearly was more at home during the day than at night. Feature one – SWORD OF VENGEANCE – sets it all up, and is a bit talky. Feature two – BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX – is better balanced, bringing in and concluding a couple of story/challenges, and introducing several good/bad guys, and a good/bad gal, supreme warriors all. The direction and writing vacillate from pulpy camp to high-exploitation, and there are some unexpected choice lines, usually delivered during the protracted moments of death.

Editorially the film is fascinating. Scenes jump to other scenes without much steerage, and this is exactly what mangas do, so they purposely tried at times to dispense with narrative cohesion, and usually succeeded. These narrative leaps certainly keep the stories moving very fast!

The blood looks just a bit short of real in terms of color. It’s no LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT blood. And yet I suspect this may have been intended, keeping the ultra-violence from going too far over the top. Then again maybe not…

There’s a lovely fire sequence in BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX that takes place below decks on a sailing ship. Fire scenes come just behind fight scenes as my favorite things in movies, and while this one doesn’t equal the similar conflagration in Brando’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962), it’s exceptionally good, a veritable bouquet of flames, within which our protagonist and three confident villains calmly discuss their fate should they survive. A memorable concept.

PHENOMENA (Synapse Films) 1985.

116 mins. A.R. 1.66:1. 2 versions.
Supplementals: Audio Commentaries, one featuring FIR columnist David Del Valle. Documentary – DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR. A CD of the score by Goblin. Directed and Co-scripted by Dario Argento. Music by Goblin and Simon Boswell. Cinematography by Romano Albani. Edited by Franco Fraticell. With: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Fiore Argento, Donald Pleasence.

One can’t complete the Xmas or Halloween columns without a Synapse release, its every frame hand-polished by tech-fetishist Don May. For Halloween it was Dario’s TENEBRAE. For Christmas it’s PHENOMENA.

This is a lyrical, relatively sedate film by Dario’s standards. Sure, Goblin comes pounding in from time to time, usually when ethereal star Jennifer Connelly is contemplating a firefly for a few minutes, or some such scenario. This is when she was still young, and the baby fat gets in the way of her performance. It’s a pleasure seeing Donald Pleasance doing his best Robert Shaw impression.

Only now and then do the colors super-saturate as they do in SUSPIRIA: again, this is a kind of Dario-light fairy tale. He’s going, admirably, for a different, softer kind of spell. Even the violence is subdued compared with some of the orgasmic effects that have preceded it. Kudos to Dario for trying something new. I think some of it might be just a bit too low key for the hardcore fans, but Synapse’s royal treatment makes the images as lush and dynamic as possible, to balance Ms. Connelly’s predominantly restrained performance.

And if you love the score, which isn’t playing things coy, then you’ll be thrilled to find a CD inside the metal-case.

It’s a good Christmas package.

Book Gift:

STAR WARS PROPAGANDA – A History of Persuasive Art in the Galaxy. By Pablo Hidalgo. Published by Harper Design.

This cleverly designed coffee table book is chock full of surprises. A sleeve within the sleeve contains posters such as the one encouraging young people to ‘Join the Soldiers in White,’ reminiscent of Soviet recruitment posters.

Both parody and serious art, you’ll love leafing through this hefty tome. Another is ‘Loose Lips Bring Down Star Ships.’ With the just-released and extremely pleasing ROGUE ONE to catch up with in theaters, this book can extend the Star Wars haze you are drifting in for days to come.

In the back of the book, as with any good poster collection, the names and bios of the many artists are listed. Except that they are all manufactured for the illusion, as with the poster art itself. An ambitious and gratifying work.

A Great CD gift:

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – Screen Archives Entertainment. 357 minutes.

Six CD/s, Ladies and Gentlemen! Count ‘em. Six! The complete score is on three discs. Then there are the alternate and unused cues. Then there are Elmer Bernstein’s original Piano Theme demos, which he introduces and plays on piano for De Mille. Inside the box you will also find the Original 1957 Dot Soundtrack Album in Mono, the 1960 Dot Soundtrack album in Stereo (re-orchestrated by Bernstein), and the 1966 United Artists Re-Recorded Album in Stereo, including new arrangements created by his longtime orchestrators Leo Shaken and Jack Hayes. And there’s also a 60-page booklet containing some images from the production I hadn’t seen before.

I’ve been waiting for this all my life without knowing it. I’m listening to it as I write this, and it’s absolutely glorious.

I ran across Elmer Bernstein at an event once and asked him which of his scores was his personal favorite. He barely hesitated before saying “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.” What I should have then asked him was ‘why?’ But an interesting choice.

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