Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: March 31, 2009

Another week, another way to spend some money! We've got a pretty good selection of film goodness to check out this week, so let's begin.

Slumdog Millionaire [DVD][Blu-ray]

It should come as no surprise that I'm leading off this week's selection of essential DVDs with the Oscar-dominating Danny Boyle film, Slumdog Millionaire. This is an outstanding film full of beauty. Whether you've seen the film already or are a repeat viewer like myself, this is a must-own DVD. I already have mine on order for $10 through Columbia House (god bless you buy one get one free) and can't wait to find it in my mailbox in the coming days.

*UPDATE*: As rumored, a lot of the retail versions of the STANDARD DVD release has been mixed up with the rental versions Fox planned to release sans-special features. If you purchase a DVD copy that has no extras outside of trailers, you can get a replacement by calling Fox customer service or emailing them. Guess greedy bastards like Fox get what's coming to them. Have fun with the extra work load, you pieces of shit!

The Matrix [10th Anniversary Blu-ray]

Believe it or not, but science-fiction classic The Matrix is 10 years old. I know, I know, this one makes us all feel a bit older than we are, but its the way she goes. If you're lucky enough to have a home theater system that can benefit from the addition of this film, more power to you. I've seen this film in HD, and while the trilogy already has seen a Blu-ray release, this is the first time you can own just the first film in the series on BR. A must buy for fans capable of enjoying The Matrix in high definition.

Cat in the Brain [DVD]

Admittedly, not every film I feature are films that I've seen. Sometimes they are simply items high on my want list that are finally seeing the light of day. Cat in the Brain, a film by Italian horror master Lucio Fulci, is one of these titles. Not so much for the film itself, but because its simply just another Fulci title to watch. I've never heard of the film prior to it getting a DVD release, but it sure does look appetizing, if the genre is your thing. Fulci is responsible for some of the gorier films in the genre including The Beyond and Zombie 2. More Fulci is good. And the cover sure looks cool, doesn't it?

The Sinful Dwarf [DVD]

I am not about to let you leave before knowing that this film exists. The quote on the top of the DVD case claims this film is "The mother of all dwarfsploitation films!" so you know it's an essential film to see. You can't go wrong. And now you know this exists.

Timecrimes [DVD]

Timecrimes is a neat little science-fiction film from Spain that I intend to check out and suggest you do as well. I've got nothing more to say on the film, so why don't you just view the trailer?

Now, due to time constraints, I'll give you the short list of other titles I myself think are worth checking out this week: Ichi The Killer [Blu-ray], Generale Della Rovere [Criterion], Two Evil Eyes [Blu-ray], Ip Man, Tell No One, Danton [Criterion], The Cremator.

What to stay away from: Hannah Montana: Keeping it Real. Okay, yeah, partly because it's Hannah Montana. The other part is that its just 5 episodes from the series thrown onto a disc to capitalize on the new film being release in a short while. It's cheap business, but it's also Disney, so we shouldn't be too surprised.

Anyways, that's all I've got for you this week. There's lots to sift through and lots worth checking out and if I had the money and time to do it all, I probably would. Hope you found something worthwhile.

The release of Slumdog Millionaire kicks off what we will know as continuous weeks of Oscar-nominated films being put onto DVD shelves. Check back next week to see the tremendous film Doubt get its release alongside a fantastic Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. Should be an interesting week. Until then, peace.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

This Haunting Came As A Surprise

At first glance, The Haunting in Connecticut seems to have all the fixings to make it just another horror film wading in the swampy waters of modern mainstream horror filmmaking. A house haunted by ghosts, based on a “true” story, hallucinatory freak-outs, an unknown director and a PG-13 rating. In most cases, this combination would prove deadly for the film at hand. There was something a bit different about this haunting though.

The Haunting in Connecticut is somewhat based on the supposed true story of the home of Al and Carmen Snedeker in Southington, Conn. which was originally featured in the book In A Dark Place. The film follows a family that relocates to the supernatural house closer to the hospital cancer-stricken son Matt Campbell (Kyle Gallner) needs to receive treatment from.

Let’s set a few things straight here. Haunting doesn’t do too much to break ground or separate itself from the rest of its genre-related counterparts. The film is a rather conventional take on the concept of haunted houses. That said, it isn’t a bad take on the horror subgenre.

Haunting also isn’t scary. At least in the typical meaning of scary in modern horror films, it isn’t. The “jump-out” scare tactics the film employs, which have been a major reason horror films have taken the fall they have the last 10 years (filmmakers forgo atmosphere and other key qualities for the eerie soundtrack aided by the loud sound and quick pan of the camera), just don’t work. Most of the first half of the film is comprised of these types of moments, such as having a shadowy figure appear and disappear or the long stare into the mirror that turns into a quick and expected attempt to make the viewer jump.

The good thing for Haunting is that the film is scary in the way I feel horror films need to be. I might be out of the ordinary in saying this, but the only way a horror film needs to scare is in concept of what is happening to the film’s characters. There’s a reason why zombie films became such a huge genre, and it isn’t because they constantly provide the viewer with loud, spine-tingling sounds. The thought of the world becoming a post-apocalyptic wasteland of people you once knew coming back from the dead to attack you is terrifying. The same goes if you try to put yourself in the shoes of anyone in the house, especially those of Matt, a young man reeling with pain whose nearing death due to cancer is being expedited by supernatural events within the house.

Where the film truly excels is in its attempt to stay grounded as a realistic horror film rather than something far too phantasmal. Sure, a lot of this true story probably didn’t happen and some of it probably was stretched, but since a lot of it deals with the visions of Matt, it can all be questioned. Writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe, along with director Peter Cornwell, used the cancer patient subplot to the upmost advantage by giving emotion to the film and the characters. Granted, this is nothing too deep, but it adds something most films of this kind just don’t have.

The best performance was from the experienced Elias Koteas, who gave a sympathy-inducing performance as Reverend Popescu, a cancer patient Matt meets and seeks help of in attempt to rid the house of its evil spirits. The rest of the cast, including Virginia Madsen and Kyle Gallner, is good enough for their roles and the type of film. None of it is close to being great, but it’s all far from terrible.

Once the film reaches its final third, there’s a lot to love. The film begins a bit slow, feeling the effects of the failure of the conventional modern horror scare tactics I mentioned earlier. Once the supernatural events spread from Matt to the entire house and family, things pick up greatly. There is some legitimately cool and atmospheric imaging towards the end of the film that has been showcased on the film’s movie poster. This includes the impressive ectoplasm from the bodies of mediums scene.

As far as the near oxymoron of PG-13 horror films go, this is a valiant and surprising effort. A lot of high-brow critics have already laid the smackdown on the film and I’m sure that trend will only continue. It might be a tad cynical to say, but I also expect a lot of the general public to write it off as a stupid, weird and unimpressive film.

It comes to a point where you have to realize what to expect from a film. While this film surely draws from the big guns of the haunted house genre such as The Amityville Horror, it’s still an enjoyable and interesting effort that came as a huge surprise to me. Don’t go in expecting a truly terrifying film and don’t go in expecting the next classic. Heck, don’t even expect something better than simply good. This is nothing more than a solid way to kill a Friday night.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Last House on The Left Proves To Be a Worthy Remake

What worked in the 1970s just won’t work these days. Therein lays the beauty of time and change. The big question for the latest remake to sneak its way into theaters, The Last House on the Left, is whether the advent of modern horror filmmaking can successfully bring the gripping story to a new audience.

12 years after Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman took the basic story of a 13th century Swedish ballad named "Töres dotter i Wänge" and created The Virgin Spring, Wes Craven took the same story and brought it out of medieval Sweden and into 1970s America. Go forward 27 more years and you have Craven producing a remake of the film that jumpstarted his lengthy and illustrious career in horror films.

The Last House on the Left focuses on the kidnapping and assault of two young girls by a group led by a prison escapee. Soon after, the group unknowingly seeks refuse at the house owned by the parents of one of the girls, which leads to the parents having to make decisions that might shake the foundation of their morals.

1970s exploitation films, much to my chagrin, are best left in the 1970s. The campy style and cheesy dialogue simply wouldn’t fly over well with audiences these days. Although the word remake seems to send shivers down my spine these days, I do appreciate the ones that are able to successfully update a story by making use of what technology has provided filmmakers with. This reiteration of The Last House on the Left is able to do just that.

The tough thing about being a remake is that no matter what, you’re subject to the scrutiny of being compared to the original. That’s just how it is. It’s a funny thing, really, comparing the two films. In style the remake comes off as being much more brutal and visceral. While yes, visually and theatrically the film is more brutal, this illusion can be credited to the modern style of horror filmmaking.

What keeps it from actually being more brutal is the attempted political correctness and safety nets. Instead of being a full fledged junkie in search of his fix, Justin, the youngest of the group of criminals, is simply a pot-smoking loser. The captive girls aren’t forced to degrade themselves by peeing their pants, they aren’t subjected to humiliation by being forced to “make it” with each other, intestines aren’t played with and there’s no oral sex castration. If I wanted to spoil both films, I could continue with more examples, but I think I’ve proved my point.

This isn’t an exercise aimed at putting the remake down, just a look at what society has stated is and isn’t allowed in an R-rated film these days. If this film had gone any further it certainly would have ended up in the dicey NC-17 area. The one key scene that is a little beefed up is the pivotal rape scene, even though this film’s version only shows a side of an ass cheek. I’ve still seen worse. I Spit on Your Grave, I’m looking at you. My desensitized nature aside, I could see others wanting to walk out of the theater after viewing this specific scene.

One of the shining aspects of the original film is the performance by David Hess. Hess plays main villain Krug and turns out one of the most intensifying, psychotic and violent performances in the history of the genre. He was so good at playing crazy that he did it two more times in the films House on the Edge of the Park and Hitch-Hike. Replacing him was my main concern when walking into the new film.

The man attempting to live up to those standards, Garret Dillahunt, is an actor I was fairly familiar from, mostly from Deadwood but also from his smaller role in No Country for Old Men. Without subjecting him to a harsh comparison, I’ll give Dillahunt credit for doing a solid job at recreating one of filmdom’s most volatile characters.

Last House is fairly well directed by Dennis Iliadis, who made only his second appearance behind the camera. Nothing is extraordinary but at the same time there is nothing to complain about. It’s a shiny film with a lot of up close and personal shots that lets the intense gruesome stuff get showcased in a gritty fashion.

As far as the plot goes, the remake has its differences with the original, which is absolutely okay by me. Whether one plot choice is better or worse than the original is a whole different story that is up to the viewer themselves. The ending is reworked a bit as the parents’ motivation to take revenge comes a bit differently. The screenplay, which was written by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, works as an effective exploitative revenge horror/thriller.

This film is a good start for how modern and original horror and exploitation filmmaking should be handled. I touched on the concept of adapting these talents and abilities to original concepts, stories and ideas when discussing last month’s Friday the 13th reboot. I’d love to see more original ideas flow out of Hollywood.

The Last House on the Left is certainly one of the better horror remakes of the decade. Just like Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of a different Wes Craven film, The Hills Have Eyes, the subject matter is successfully adapted to modern times by way of intensifying the events with a glossy overcoat.

Horror and exploitative B-movies from the 1970s distinguished themselves from those of other eras very easily. Highlighted by lots of sex, sleaze, violence, cheesy dialogue, low budgets and midnight showings the decade became an animal unlike any other that these days is long gone.

As we near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, modern horror filmmaking, for better or worse, has distinguished itself and come into its own as an era best known for bigger budgeted, fast-paced and intense films full of gore. And while this updated version doesn’t have the smarts, wit, satire or certain charm of the groundbreaking original film, it is a great example of what the genre has become.

DVD Picks of the Week: March 24, 2009

Welcome to the third installment of my suggested DVD picks of the week! I mentioned in the closing of last weeks uneventful write-up that this week would be a busy one. I wasn't lying. Let's get started.

Quantum of Solace [DVD] [Blu-ray]

Quantum of Solace wasn't perfect, I'll admit that. It also wasn't close to being as good as Casino Royale. All that said, I enjoyed this film. It had its flaws (overuse of hyper-edits and shaky cam) but it was also an explosive new look at the James Bond series. Completists will buy this film for completition sake while others may decide to pass on it. It's good enough for me.

The 400 Blows [Criterion Blu-ray]

Ah Criterion Collection, how I love you. If there's anything that makes me want to buy a PS3 and an HDTV at the same time its Criterion's foray into the high definition business. With The Third Man already getting issued on BR and The Seventh Seal getting a future release on BR, The 400 Blows is the ultimate in-between tease for me. I already own the standard Criterion Collection version of this essential French new wave film and I would upgrade in a heartbeat if I had the proper hardware. This is a stunning film from one of the greatest directors of all time, Francois Truffaut and should be viewed by everyone at some point in their life.

Goldfinger [Blu-ray]

The third film in the James Bond series gets the high definition treatment to go along with the new film's release. What more can really be said about the original Sean Connery Bond films? Not much. If you haven't seen it, get busy. Other Bond films being issued on Blu-ray today are Moonraker, The World Is Not Enough. Oh and that "unofficial" Bond film that stars Sean Connery, Never Say Never Again.

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood [DVD] [Blu-ray]

Now, I haven't actually watched this yet, but I have read it. If you're itching for more Watchmen material this might be worth checking out. Gerard Butler of 300 fame voices the main character for the Black Freighter portion of the film, the comic within the Watchmen comic. Under the Hood is the back story of the original Nite Owl. The only problem with buying this might be that it will all be added into a super-duper complete director's cut version of the Watchmen film when that is released on DVD. Be careful if you hate double dipping on DVDs.

Because I'm lazy or haven't seen these films/TV shows I'm opting to give honorable mentions to the following titles: In Treatment, Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 3, Venture Bros. Season 3, The Kite Runner [Blu-ray], Bolt.

And a new feature! What to stay away from! The guinea pig for this portion is The Fast and The Furious Trilogy on Blu-ray. If you even feel the need to buy that you need a head exam.

But enough about shitty Vin Diesel films. Slumdog Millionaire comes out next week! See you then!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Oh, great, a Saw VI update!

Alright, alright. If you know me you could sense the sarcasm. If you don't me, check out my review from last October on Saw V and you'll realize the last thing I want to be hearing about is an update on the next installment of the terrible, passionless and uninspired Saw series.

According to the folks who update officialsawnews.com, Saw VI is going to feature the return of Shawnee Smith, the actress who played Amanda. Guess what this means? MORE FLASHBACKS!

If you asked me to tell you the plots of the last few Saw films I wouldn't be able to distinguish one from another thanks to the poor editing and hideous overuse of flashback. For me the films have become one giant muddled mess of story that continues to drag on too long for its own good. If you aren't familiar with the series, the basic idea is that the writers of the film have tried to set up an absolutely twisting and winding plot that brings characters back into the frame through the use of flashbacks. The problem simply being that there are far too many of them.

In short, Saw V attempted hard to be a gripping and investigative detective thriller. It was a dull bore though. Hell, even the traps were lame. With absolutely nothing to take away from the latest film, the series is slipping closer to its grave. Not that it hasn't already reached it in terms of creative credibility. It's not quite there yet, though. The last film still took in $56 million on a $10 million budget. A performance that will surely yield at least a few more sequels.

"Also, this movie is a lot more violent than the previous," says producer Mark Burg on the next rehash of this cash cow. Considering the timidness of the fifth film in the series, this next one better be if the men filling their pockets want to continue doing so. I tell you what though. I love nothing more than a good exploitative gore-romp or sexual sleaze epic and I'm not afraid to admit it, as most of America might be. I tell you what again though. There's a huge difference between the charming "passion for the game" films of the 1970s and the "passion for the green" films of the last few years. Just check out one of the great B-movie trailer collections from 42nd Street Forever to see what I mean. I don't know if the series can redeem itself, but I'd like to give it every possible chance.

I've said it once and I've said it again, Lions Gate and company are killing the horror and exploitation genres by filling it with absolute crap after absolute crap. Once landfills of great, groundbreaking ideas, these genres have turned into pools of zero originality. Whatever sells, I guess.

It's true too, actually. As evidenced in late 2008, Lions Gate clearly has no love for the actual creative films they have under distribution. Midnight Meat Train, while by no means perfect, came from the twisted mind of Clive Barker and proved to be a more than enjoyable film. The company shafted Mr. Barker after disputes had the film ending up in $1 budget theaters. I wasn't able to see the film until it debuted on FearNet OnDemand in the Free Zone on Cox Digital Cable.

The other piece of evidence comes from the terribly devastating shaft Lions Gate gave Saw II-IV director Darren Lynn Bousman with his new film Repo! The Genetic Opera. I gave this film an absolutely rave review over a month ago for good reason. The film, which quickly became a personal favorite of mine, was shafted and only given a short and limited road tour. Films like Bousman's Repo! and Barker's Meat Train are the ones that deserve the theatrical releases. Not generic PG-13 remake of well-done Asian film #32.

And don't tell me, "But Michael, you're taking the Saw films for something they are n't!" This just isn't true. I know what they are. I've just seen better. Give me Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit On Your Grave, Hitch-Hike, I Drink Your Blood, Make Them Die Slowly or one of the countless Troma B-movie classics before you put a Saw film in my DVD player.

But as I said before, whatever sells, right? With a cash cow like the Saw series floating on their desks, I guess there's no reasons to risk their money with something that isn't a sure thing. Regardless, my point of view is this: If a film concerning a person who traps people for no good reason can become a powerhouse at the cinema, why can't the rest?

Whatever. I've said this all before and I'm anxiously awaiting the day I don't have to say it again. Come October Saw VI will be released into theaters and, fingers crossed, will earn less than Saw V did. The series is dying but it can't be killed completely until greater America stops supporting it. Unfortunately, the series has such a strong core of mindless morons (no offense if you actually enjoy the series) that things look grim for originality seekers such as me.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Getting the Criterion Treatment

Announced today from Paramount Home Entertainment is the news that David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be getting a release from the Criterion Collection in both standard and Blu-ray formats on May 5th. The film will also be released as a standard 1-disc release.

According to the release from Paramount, the 2-disc Criterion Collection release will include a commentary by director David Fincher and a 4-part making of documentary that covers from the casting to the costumes and more.

While the news isn't exactly revolutionary for the company that specializes in art house and foreign films, it is an unexpected announcement. It should do wonders for the company in terms of being able to pay the bills.

The company has a small history with releasing films of such notoriety. When Criterion was releasing Laserdiscs they distributed Fincher's film Se7en. Some of the other DVD releases from the company that stick out like sore thumbs amongst the numerous Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa films include films like Armageddon and The Rock.

One can only imagine Fincher must have had some pull with the studio to allow the rights to be given to Criterion for the 2-disc standard edition and Blu-ray releases. It's not a shattering development, but it definitely wasn't expected.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Les Claypool - Of Fungi and Foe (2009)

Best known as the lead man and bassist of the indescribable band Primus, Les Claypool has done just about everything an artist can do over the last few years. He’s ventured into the solo territory, written a book titled South of the Pumphouse, and directed and starred in his film Electric Apricot: Quest For Festeroo, which is a jam band mockumentary in the vein of This Is Spinal Tap.

Claypool, who has worked with a variety of artists ranging from Phish’s Trey Anastasio to The Police’s Stewart Copeland to guitar soloist Buckethead, returns to the solo arena with Of Fungi and Foe, nearly two years after his first solo release similarly titled Of Whales and Woe.

Claypool is joined on this album by an assortment of musicians including long time Claypool contributor Mike Dillon and lead singer of Gogol Bordello, Eugene Hütz. Claypool’s young son Cage Claypool makes a repeat appearance on the album as well.

Of Fungi and Foe is strange to say the least. The album, which Claypool created while recording soundtracks for two projects – one being the Nintendo Wii game Mushroom Men and the other being the feature film Pig Hunt – is far more experimental than the talented bassist’s previous solo effort. Better or not is a whole different question.

For a fan like me, Of Fungi and Foe is more of the strange musical sounds that I love to hear Claypool produce. While getting back into the studio with Primus would be nice and all, this will do. Those who aren’t familiar with Claypool or his musical backgrounds would probably be absolutely confused as to how someone could really enjoy the music, and that’s understandable. This album isn’t for everyone.

The album starts off fairly strong. “Mushroom Men”, as the title would suggest, is in reference to the video game he wrote the soundtrack for, and is a brooding musical assembly. “Red State Girl” is a comedic satire piece portraying the song’s main characters as being from red states as displayed in the Electoral College. Claypool likens the female character as wanting to be like Sarah Palin and the male character as having a naked picture of Sarah Palin.

“Booneville Stomp” is an expanded track of a song Claypool released sometime last year for the film Pig Hunt that he also acts in. It’s a track that easily fits the theme and the feel of a film that has to do with hunting down mutant pigs and has the ever so notable Claypool sound to it.

I found myself enjoying the entire album. Some fans might be tired of this kind of Les Claypool, saying he’s run out of ideas, but I can’t help but like everything the man puts out. He’s one of my favorite figures in the history of music and if what he wants to do his further explore different styles of music I can’t help but support that.

Pure Reason Revolution - Amor Vincit Omnia (2009)

Progressive rock isn’t an easy genre to love these days. It’s hard not to get too cynical about the state of music these days with the way the mainstream record business is run and handled. That’s why when I first heard British band Pure Reason Revolution’s debut album The Dark Third I was absolutely blown away by the band.

The Dark Third still ranks among my favorite albums of the last few years. It’s progressive rock the way it should be. It came as no surprise that the album was produced by Paul Northfield, a man who has worked with progressive rock giants such as Rush, Porcupine Tree and Gentle Giant.

Initial thoughts on Amor Vincit Omnia, the personally long awaited release, consisted of the differences between this new album and the bands first effort. Still progressive but experimental as ever as the band fuses more electronic sounds into the mix. The Dark Third is an album that would be hard to live up to and while Amor Vincit Omnia doesn’t quite do that, it’s still an admirable sophomore album.

The bands lack of fear to change sits high in my book. Its something I typically admire in artists. Those who aren’t afraid to change what their fans originally loved show the music is as much for them as it is to make money. I personally think the band is at its best when utilizing its progressive rock background but I can respect the change.

Amor Vincit Omnia is led by the track “Deus Ex Machina”. Funny thing is, I had heard this track before, as it had been in work for awhile and was included on their 2007 live album. It’s a throttling and intense track complete with the bands unique vocal styling of soaring choruses and repeated lines from the bands two main singers, Chloë Alper and Jon Courtney.

The weakest song the album is aptly titled “Disconnect” as it comes as being a huge disconnect from the style of music that makes Pure Reason Revolution as good as they are. This is as electronic as their music gets on their album and it proves to be a bad thing. The song isn’t awful, but it feels out of place and unnatural for the group.

Change can be both good and bad. Amor Vincit Omnia is a good effort from this up and coming progressive rock band. Anyone looking for that next great progressive rock band shouldn’t look too much further past this group.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Phish: Summer 2009 Tour

The great jam band Phish has just announced more of its summer schedule following its huge success during its three day comeback weekend in Hampton earlier this month. The band has announced 12 more shows to the list including a date in Hartford at the Meadows Music Theater. If Phish is still calling it that I'm still calling it that.

Detailed information on the show is as follows:

Show Starts:
8:00PM Doors Open: 6:30PM Tickets on Sale: Saturday, March 28th, 2009 12:00PM EST (Tickets Available)
Ticket Information: A limited number of tickets are available directly through Phish Tickets' online ticketing system at http://phish.portals.musictoday.com/ . The ticketing request period is currently underway and will end on Sunday, March 22nd at 11:59PM EST.

Tickets go on sale to the public on Saturday, March 28th at Noon Eastern Time. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.livenation.com or charge by phone 877.598.8689 or 877.598.8497. Tickets can also be purchased at select Blockbuster outlets. If any tickets are still available they can also be purchased at the Chevrolet Theatre in Wallingford beginning March 30th.

Pricing: $49.50 Reserved and GA Lawn

I for one am excited. I saw Roger Waters at the Meadows back in the summer of 2007 and as amazing as that was, this should surely surpass that.

For the rest of the band's tour dates and more information, visit their website.

DVD Picks of the Week: March 17, 2009

Week two of the continuing DVD selections. Not a very strong week this time around. There's only a few things of note being released on Tuesday March 17, 2009.

This new set of six films from the important German expressionism director F.W. Murnau is a collection of new and previously released films from the great DVD company Kino. Murnau's most notable film has to be Nosferatu, the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. The tricky thing about this box set is that it seems to only contain disc 1 of the 2-disc sets previously released by the company. The film Faust, which is getting a simultaneuous restored 2-disc release, is only represented by the first disc on the set. More research must be done before deciding whether that is simply the first disc of the set or a different disc with the reauthorized print of the film and the extra features combined. Either way, these are great films from a historically significant director.

Eclipse Series 15-Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu

Not everything I select in my weekly pickings will be things I've seen. This is a director I've never even heard of. Initial research indicates that I should be more familiar with him. There's absolutely no better way than by delving into one of Criterion's Eclipse series, which is a project that aims at simply presenting films with no fluffy extras at a reasonable per film/disc price. I already own the Early Ingmar Bergman collection from the Eclipse series. Hiroshi Shimizu is commented on as being on the best "unknown" directors. Looks like someone knows about him.

Other notable releases: Quo Vadis [Blu-ray],
The Princess Bride [Blu-ray], Elegy, The Robe [Standard]/[Blu-ray].

That's all this week. Not very much going on as you can see. Check back next week as the newest Bond flick sees its release. Some old Bond titles get the Blu-ray treatment as well. Criterion Collection is using March 24 as a day to expand their rising Blu-ray collection with classics such as The 400 Blows getting the makeover. It's going to be a busy week.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watchmen Comic, Film Have Link To Connecticut

Well before the characters of Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen were chosen to be turned into a live-action film they were apart of a minor comic book publishing house located in Derby, Connecticut called Charlton Comics.

Charlton Comics’, who closed its doors in 1986, main secret of early success was keeping the costs low. Part of its Connecticut connection was an integral part of this process. According to Donald Markstein, creator of the cartoon encyclopedia website toonopedia.com, operating out of Derby was much cheaper than operating out of New York City like giant comic book companies of the time did. In addition, Charlton Comics used an in-house second-hand press originally used for printing cereal boxes.

The minor comic book company was the original owner of the characters DC Comics eventually acquired in 1983 while Charlton was on its last breath. DC Comics commissioned Moore, giving him free reign to disguise and transform them into what we now know as the characters of Watchmen.

Watchmen, heralded as one of Time’s 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present, has been skyrocketing upwards ever since the trailer for the Zack Snyder directed film debuted before The Dark Knight last summer. Amazon.com has Watchmen in their top spot for bestsellers in books while book giant Barnes & Noble lists the graphic novel third overall in sales rank among books.

Most people, readers or not, know that the Watchmen film is an adaptation of the legendary DC produced graphic novel. What many might not be aware of is where the inspiration for these famous characters came from.

In the mid-1960s Steve Ditko, listed as one of the co-creators of Spider-Man, returned to Charlton Comics to create a few of the characters that would serve as the basis for some of the most popular Watchmen characters.

Before Jackie Earle Haley put the ink blotted mask on and became the live-action Rorschach in the big budget motion picture, Ditko created The Question, the mysterious, merciless and faceless vigilante who also wore a brown trench coat and fedora.

Ditko and Charlton Comics co-worker Joe Gill were responsible for the inspiration of Watchmen’s big blue hero, Dr. Manhattan. Captain Atom first appeared in Space Adventures #33, a March 1960 comic book. Both Captain Atom and Dr. Manhattan received their powers from a similar scientific mishap. The main difference in these two characters lies with Dr. Manhattan having much greater powers than the original incarnation of Captain Atom.

In a 2000 interview in the ninth issue of the publication Comic Book Artist, Moore confirms the fact that the Charlton Comics characters were indeed inspiration for his Watchmen characters. “The Question was Rorschach, yep. Dr. Manhattan and Captain Atom were obviously equivalent. Nite-Owl and the new (Ted Kord) Blue Beetle were equivalent,” said Moore.

Nite-Owl I and II were both inspired by the two versions of the Blue Beetle with Dan Garrett inspiring the original Nite-Owl (Hollis Mason) and Ted Kord inspiring the second Nite-Owl (Dan Dreiberg). These two are similar in how both Nite-Owl II and the Ted Kord Blue Beetle had early predecessors of the same name.

The Comedian was The Peacemaker. According to Moore, because of the free reign given, they decided to make The Comedian a “slightly right-wing, patriotic, and we mixed in a little bit of (Marvel Comics character) Nick Fury” character. With all the inspired Watchmen characters, the similarities are evident along with the differences.

Ozymandias, also known as Adrian Veidt was Thunderbolt. Moore said that Veidt did grow out of the Thunderbolt character as he liked the way Peter Cannon, the real name of Thunderbolt, used his full brain to capacity as well as being able to use his physical side.

Silk Spectre had correlation with the original characters Nightshade and The Phantom Lady. Although neither were direct representations of the Watchmen character Silk Spectre, they both worked as the sort of heroine Moore envisioned for his novel. The character was more out of female necessity than direct inspiration.

The transformation of these characters didn’t spell death for them though. A few have reappeared in their own comic mediums since then. For example, The Question picked up a copy of Watchmen to read in issue #17 and after finding Rorschach to be cool at first, deems that “Rorschach sucks” after failing to emulate his style of brutal justice.

One can only wonder what would be the outcome of such characters if the destiny of Charlton Comics had been different. If the small comic book company had never been struggling and had never had to sell its assets and rights to the larger DC Comics to make back whatever it could, would Watchmen exist? Would there be a heavily promoted film rocketing into theaters? In no way of slighting the brilliant work done by Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins, could this all be possible without the likes of Charlton Comics?

All this hype for a film from a small comic book publication located in Derby, Conn. Derby, the town that self-declares itself as being “Connecticut’s smallest city in size”. More than 60 years after Charlton Comics became Charlton Comics, a film with a budget of $150 million has been made. All this from comics that used to cost 10 cents a pop.

DVD Picks of the Week: March 10, 2009

What a great week to start this new feature. Being that I love films, it should come as no surprise that I love DVDs as well. I have a huge collection myself so I'm always keeping an eye on the release charts.

The impact of DVDs on films has been huge. It's been a medium that has allowed older films to be restored and viewed the way they should be seen and a way for smaller independent films to see the light of day outside of theaters.

I now present to you the first of a hopefully weekly column on the must see DVDs of the week, beginning with those released today, March 10th.

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York is the mind blowing directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the man responsible for writing recent American classics such as Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the best least talked about performance of the year in this complex film. Because the film was given such little screen time in theaters across America in 2008, it wasn't given any Oscar nominations, although it certainly deserved its fair share. One of the five best films of 2008 for sure.

Let The Right One In

Let The Right One In is another film that I found to be among the best of 2008 that wasn't given the rightful play time it deserved in the states. This simple but masterfully directed film is essentially vampire love stories done right. It's an insanely moody film in style with a captivating and straightforward story with two good lead performances from young actors. This is not your average "genre" flick about vampires. If any of these things spark your interest, you must see this film right now.


One of the most important stories told in 2008 was that of Harvey Milk. The best thing about this story was how spectacularly told it was. Gus Van Sant directs an incomparable Sean Penn, who breaks free from his tough guy conception to deliver a performance of uncanny similarity to the real life Milk. Penn stole the Oscar for best lead actor from Mickey Rourke, and deservedly so. I'll still hold strong on the opinion that Rourke deserved it more, but you can't say the Academy made a bad choice. If you think they did, you just haven't seen this film yet.

Role Models

Role Models was one of the funnier films I saw in 2008. It's not perfect but it was good for lots of laughs in a way two films I loved, stoner comedy Pineapple Express and satirical spy comedy Burn After Reading, weren't. Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott work well together but Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bobb'e J. Thompson stole the show. Comedies aren't usually high up on my must see list so when one comes along that I like, it's usually a worthy film.

That's it for now, folks. Check back later as I'll surely add more must see DVDs to the list. And check back at the beginning of each week for a new post of highly recommended DVDs. Thanks for reading!

Watchmen Sets New Standard In Graphic Novel Adaptation

It doesn’t really shock me that one of Alan Moore’s main influences when writing the Watchmen book was the great and unique novelist William S. Burroughs. Both Moore, with Watchmen, and Burroughs, with Naked Lunch, are the minds behind two of the more unfilmable source materials eventually turned into films.

Long before Zack Snyder took the challenging task of bringing the celebrated graphic novel to life on the big screen, the concept of a Watchmen film had been attached to different production companies and many names, such as heralded directors Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky.

Nearly 23 years after the film’s initial rights were given to 20th Century Fox; the Watchmen film has finally come to fruition. All that now remains is the question of whether the film was worth the wait and whether the choice to film the once thought to be unfilmable was a smart idea.

Watchmen, which follows Rorschach’s investigation of the death of an ex-superhero, is a tough film to review. Considering all the different windows the audience could be looking through when viewing the film makes me fully realize what this film is to one might not be for another.

For starters, you’ve got your obsessed fanboy who has read the novel countless times picking detail after detail from the book’s deep subtext. Lower on the awareness chain are the viewers of my kind. These are the ones that read the graphic novel once after being mesmerized by the original trailer last summer. Last but not least are the members of the audience who are totally oblivious to the subject matter or the characters (don’t worry, that isn’t a sin in my book, just a fact).

For most films, making this distinction wouldn’t be important. But, folks, this isn’t The Dark Knight. Watchmen is a violent, gritty, strange, sprawling and extremely in-depth piece of work. This isn’t a film chock full of action. What it is though, is a story, and a complex and complete one at that. It’s a mesmerizing period tale set in an actively catastrophic, politically challenged and tense world of nuclear war threat ready to explode at any minute.

A diehard fan would hold this novel in the highest regard. It’s one of the most important graphic novels ever made. A one time reader like me would be hard-pressed to find themselves caring too much about every little detail, worrying mostly about the large plot turns and devices. A newcomer to the deep story might just end up slightly confused not getting what they expected.

Watching Watchmen was like watching the graphic novel come to life in a way I didn’t think was possible. Zack Snyder hit it spot on. His previous films, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and the 2006 graphic novel adaptation of 300 seem like child’s play in comparison to this sprawling superhero saga. One of the most important reasons for this film’s success is the perfect casting. Each character turned out exactly as I imagined they would when I was reading through the graphic novel. It would have been very easy for Warner Bros. to give a part to a big name actor rather than dishing out roles to the most fitting contestants.

The important thing to understand about these impressive performances is that they aren’t incredibly jaw-dropping in terms of acting ability, but flawless in terms of producing an accurate and believable portrayal of each character. None of these performances will win awards, but they don’t have to for this type of film to succeed. The film is undoubtedly fronted by Jackie Earle Haley’s fierce and sympathetic performance as Rorschach. The stand out performance gives absolute justice to the gritty character.

I can’t possibly touch on every performance but I will add that Billy Crudup played Dr. Manhattan in a never overbearing fashion, Patrick Wilson was an excellent Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl II), Matthew Goode was a perfectly cunning and deceptive Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan was ever so brutal as Edward Blake (The Comedian). The cast as a whole was entirely impressive and made this film what it was.

The most challenging part of translating Watchmen to the silver screen was bringing such a complex narrative jam-packed with philosophical themes and meaning down to a 163 minute film. Moore covered it all in robust fashion in 416 pages in his original text.

The first screenplay was written in 2001 by David Hayter before being handed over to Alex Tse to make revisions and rewrites. For all intents and purposes, these two faithfully captured all that was needed to be told. The backstories of characters that intertwined with the film’s present day events such as Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan were executed perfectly and Snyder handled them beautifully on screen.

The mood of the film was ever-changing, but with good reason. While not all the details are as you will find them in the graphic novel you would be troubled to find a more faithful and spot on adaptation of Watchmen than this. The talked about tweaked ending is simply a different plot device that results in the same outcome.

Visually, Snyder excelled. His keen ability to produce such visually impressive films brought the vibrant and colorful pages of the Watchmen graphic novel alive. He didn’t so much put his stamp on the film as much as he translated the story over. Snyder created a true Watchmen world as far as I’m concerned. Costumes and sets were impressive and truly helped engulf me as a viewer.

My one complaint about this absolutely satisfying film comes from the odd and strange musical decisions. Rather than opting to use just the original score by Tyler Bates, Snyder decided to use songs from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and others. While I particularly liked the use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing” in the opening credits, something about Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” didn’t fit the role. It was strange and out of place, an overlook by Snyder and the rest of the crew perhaps.

I can see newcomers not liking this film. I can see hardcore fans being obsessively picky. Not to say that if you fall into either of those two categories you’re doomed of not enjoying this film the way I did. While others might have found the film too long and over encompassing, I personally am itching to get my hands on the future director’s cut DVD.

Watchmen by all means isn’t perfect, but it is spectacular. For me, it sets a new standard of brilliance in graphic novel and comic book adaptations. The Dark Knight was one thing, but Watchmen is something of a different breed.

The Third Man Set To Darken The Screen At Real Art Ways

A zither begins to play. A tour of post-war Vienna is given by a British police officer with a voiceover beginning “I never knew the old Vienna”. This is how the memorable The Third Man gets its feet off the ground.

And this memorable introduction is just the beginning of one of the most remarkable and mysterious films in the history of cinema. The British film noir, directed by the overwhelmingly underrated Carol Reed, has been talked about constantly in the 60 years since its release, and for good reason.

The Third Man is noir at its finest. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna only to find out that the friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who invited him there, is dead. Martins dives deeper into the question of accident or murder by digging up all possible information and sources he can.

Film director Peter Bogdanovich puts it best. While entirely debatable, he likes to call The Third Man the best non-auteur film ever. This meaning the best culmination of talents, rather than a film that was being written and directed by the same person who also applies his or her distinct style to the film, like many films by the likes of Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard.

The Third Man is a lot of artists at the tops of their game. The culmination of talent in The Third Man starts with Graham Greene’s screenplay. Greene used his novella of the same name to create the atmosphere, characterization and story for the screenplay that ends up bleeding from the film. His mysterious noir story was originally intended only as source material for the screenplay before it was published as a full novella.

The trend in talent continues to the screen with great performance after great performance. Orson Welles is, as writer Luc Sante says, the ghost in the machine for The Third Man. Alluded to constantly, referenced in the title and the most powerful and moving performer in the film, Welles is at his most mystifying in his limited time on screen. The banter between Welles and the perfectly American Joseph Cotten, two often on screen partners, is at its highest during the Ferris wheel scene in which Welles even added his own now famous line of dialogue to the script.

Acting doesn’t end with Cotten and Welles. The whole entire cast triumphs greatly and are key in making The Third Man what it is. Alida Valli is very dame while Trevor Howard is the cunning Major Calloway, the man running the investigation. Each performance, whether it is large or small, adds to the film in a major way.

The final key to the success of The Third Man is its director, Carol Reed. Vienna was such a beautifully photographable city in the time of this film. The damp, wet shots of the streets and buildings at night are evidence of the ability to make Vienna stand out as another character in the film. The black and white style of the film noir hides the pain the post-war city might have leaving viewers with only the mystery of the city.

The best example of all this is the film’s conclusion that takes viewers from city streets to suffocating sewers. In an attempt to leave the film’s all too good mystery as alive and well as possible I will only comment on the finale as being tense and dazzling and has made for some of the best and most impressive chiaroscuro moments in the film noir genre. It’s both visually arresting and an absolutely satisfying finish to the film.

The Third Man is one of the greatest films ever made. I’m a believer of this and so are many others. Whether it is Orson Welles’ limited yet captivating performance or Anton Karas’ unmistakable and perfectly suitable zither score, The Third Man is a timeless film entrenched in many minds for many reasons and will be stuck in the minds of many newcomers for many years to come.

The Third Man will be shown on Monday, March 16 at Real Art Ways. The special early screening will be at 1:30 pm with a discussion following the film. For more information, visit www.realartways.org.

U2 - No Line on the Horizon (2009)

No Line on the Horizon
March 3, 2009

U2, love them or hate them, must be given credit. Since their first album in 1980, the band has had the same four man lineup and has stayed successful keeping their sound fresh and ever-changing. The band’s latest album, No Line on the Horizon, is their first album since 2004 and another example of how U2 tends to make things different.

For me, U2 has always been a band that sits in the middle ground of my musical taste. Rarely do I ever find myself listening to any U2 albums from start to beginning before finding myself wandering away from it to something more pleasing to my ears. In fact, outside of songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”, most of their work goes past me as unmemorable and simplistic sounding mainstream rock.

Horizon is a bit different. It by no means is a perfect album or an album that has made me become a U2 fan, but it is most certainly an enjoyable listening experience. Brian Eno, whose latest critical achievement in producing was Coldplay’s Viva la Viva or Death and All His Friends, joins U2 once again to produce and add his touch to the new album. If the first few tracks are any indication, the touch paid off.

The album, which opens with the title track “No Line on the Horizon”, impresses from the get go. The opening title track is an energetic barrage. Bono still has a voice. The album proceeds to “Magnificent” which at first doesn’t sound like a U2 song at all. The guitar at the beginning is mean and angry. Bono’s vocals add a lot to the second song, much like most songs.

Horizon is an album that grows on you. When I first listened to the album a few weeks ago I wasn’t sure what to think. The songs are catchy, enjoyable and fun. The Eno touch is alive and well on tracks like the first single “Get on Your Boots”, “I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight” and “Stand Up Comedy”. “Get on Your Boots” industrial and electronic vibe seems to be a first for the band.

For a band that has released 12 studio albums in nearly 30 years, it’s hard to ask for more than what we’ve received here. As a non-fan of U2, I greatly appreciated and enjoyed their newest effort. It might not have made be become a Edge-head but I do have new respect for the group that just won’t seem to go away.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wrap Up of Films Watched in February of 2009

That time of the month. In 2009, that phrase to me means giving an overview of all the films I've watched earlier that month. January had me logging 32 films, good for more than one a day. With school starting and free time being taken away, how does February hold up? Keep reading to find out.

Once again, a * denotes first time viewing. Film titles link to IMDB pages. A clickable score will refer you to a past review of the film.

33. 2/1 – Slumdog Millionaire10/10
34. 2/3 – Salaam Bombay!* – 8.5/10
35. 2/4 – Burn After Reading9.5/10
36. 2/5 – Repo! The Genetic Opera9/10
37. 2/6 – Legend* – 6.5/10
38. 2/8 – The Rocky Horror Picture Show* – 9/10
39. 2/8 – Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters* - 9.5/10
40. 2/9 – Frozen River* - 8.5/10
41. 2/12 – Shock Treatment* - 7.5/10
42. 2/13 – District B13* - 9/10
43. 2/15 – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three* - 9/10
44. 2/15 – Adaptation* - 9.5/10
45. 2/16 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind* - 9.5/10
46. 2/16 – Cecil B. Demented – 8/10
47. 2/17 – Cinema Paradiso* – 10/10
48. 2/17 – A Touch of Greatness* - 8/10
49. 2/18 – Slap Shot* - 8.5/10
50. 2/19 – The Rocky Horror Picture Show – 9/10
51. 2/20 – Friday the 13th (2009)* - 5/10
52. 2/20 – Role Models* - 8/10
53. 2/21 – Wet Hot American Summer* - 6.5/10
54. 2/21 – Wild at Heart* - 9/10
55. 2/22 – Waiting* - 7/10
56. 2/23 – Let The Right One In* - 9.5/10
57. 2/24 – The Silence of the Lambs – 9.5/10

I count 25. Not bad considering school started, time faded and I spent a good four days in San Diego (but who's complaining!?). February seemed to be a month of catching up on films I waited far too long to see. Let The Right One In, Slap Shot, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Cinema Paradiso are just a few that help complete that theme.

Here are my awards for February 2009. I will be using the same format but if I feel like an award is unnecessary for the particular month I won't issue it. Most Disappointing Film and Most Overrated Film will be left out as I can't rightly place a film next to that tag. Enjoy.

Best Film (New Viewing): Cinema Paradiso
It's gotta be Cinema Paradiso. I've owned this film for quite some time but never popped it in my DVD player until this month. What a mistake that was. I chose to go with the original theatrical cut that is roughly 50 minutes shorter than the director's cut for my first viewing. I think it was a good choice. This tender, beautiful and emotional film has so many relationships that can be touched on even further and deeper than they already were. I look forward to watching the longer cut down the road.
Runners-up: Let The Right One In, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Best Film (Repeated Viewing): Slumdog Millionaire
Last month Slumdog Millionaire missed the repeated viewing award by one spot. Thankfully for Slumdog I didn't view any of my all time favorites this month. I don't feel like saying more than I already have about this film. I love it dearly.
Runners-up: Burn After Reading, The Silence of the Lambs, Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Worst Film (Any Viewing): Friday the 13th
Fuck remakes.
Runners-up: Legend.

Most Surprising Film: Frozen River
I gotta say, I didn't see this one coming. I knew Melissa Leo had gotten the nomination for best actress and I still thought nothing of it. Thanks to her incredible performance the film was as gripping as any this Oscar season. It's a shame the film was and still is so little seen and talked about. It deserves better.
Runners-up: District B13, Role Models.

Most Underrated Film: Cecil B. Demented
Going with the ode to underground cinema by John Waters. It's a cult favorite of mine with terrific performances by Michael Shannon, Stephen Dorff, Adrian Grenier and so on. It's a funny little film that entertains to the maximum degree.
Runners-up: Frozen River, District B13, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Another month, another set of films down. What will March bring? Check back in a few weeks to find out!