Tag Archives: Blu-ray/DVD reissues

Tough Guys Don’t Dance ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2007)

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You’ve likely heard by now that Norman Mailer has passed on. I’ll let the literary critics debate his legacy as an author, but I feel duty-bound to recommend a couple of memorable films that Mailer had a hand in creating.

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Believe it or not, Mailer had four films to his credit as a director. I can’t speak for Beyond the Law (1968), Wild 90 (1968), or Maidstone (1970) because I’ve never seem them (they’re pretty obscure and currently unavailable ), but Mailer’s fourth and final directorial effort, from 1987, happens to be one of my personal cult favorites.

If “offbeat noir” is your thing, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, kinky sex, blackmail and murder. Due to temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.)

Veteran noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino resurrected him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission to hear Tierny bark “I just deep-sixed two heads!”).

Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted, but his minimalist style works, giving this film a David Lynch feel (that could  be due to the fact that Isabella Rossilini co-stars and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).

I would also recommend The Executioner’s Song. A star-making turn from Tommy Lee Jones helped make this dramatization of the Gary Gilmore case one of the best “made for TV” films. Mailer adapted the teleplay from his own book (both of these titles available on DVD).

Summer of Darkness: Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2007)

The summer of 2007 has been belly belly good for aficionados of film noir (guilty, your honor!). Recent DVD reissues include Criterion’s long awaited restoration of Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole, a trio from MGM including Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the WIndow, Orson Welles’ The Stranger and Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (all three sporting transfers superior to public domain prints on previous DVDs) and now  there’s an outstanding  10-film set from Warner Brothers, the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4.

The real jewels among the treasures in the Warner Brothers box set are a pair of cult films that hardcore noir geeks have been itching to get their mitts on for years-Crime Wave and Decoy (both on one disc-it’s almost enough make me believe that there is a God).

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Crime Wave (1954) was directed by Andre de Toth, perhaps more well-known for directing stark westerns like Ramrod (1947) and Day of the Outlaw (1959). After languishing in B-movie obscurity for decades, this strikingly photographed, low-budget wonder has built a cult following over the years.

The story itself is fairly standard issue; an ex-con trying to go straight (Gene Nelson) is framed and blackmailed by two former cell mates (ubiquitous noir heavy Ted de Corsia and a  young Charles Bronson). Nelson’s character gets a shot at clearing himself by helping a homicide detective (played by a looming, toothpick-chewing Sterling Hayden) bring his blackmailers to justice.

The two main factors setting Crime Wave apart from other era B-movies are the meticulously composed cinematography (by DP Burt Glennon) and the ingenious use of L.A. locations. Although the decision to shoot almost exclusively on location was likely based more on pragmatism (budgetary constraints) than artistic vision, the end result was a neo-realism that makes the film seem less dated than its contemporaries. The DVD transfer is nearly flawless, taken from what looks like a pristine vault print.

I also send out major kudos to whomever it was came up with the inspired idea to pair up film noir expert extraordinaire Eddie Muller with the master of modern pulp crime fiction, James Ellroy for the commentary track. Muller’s encyclopedic torrent of fascinating trivia and savant-like grasp of All Things Noir is always worth the ride (I heartily recommend you pick up his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) and having Ellroy in the passenger seat is extra icing on the cake.

Ellroy is a riot; panting and growling his way through the commentary and acting like a perverse version of the proverbial kid in the candy store as he spots and identifies familiar L.A. locales. Most interestingly, he posits Crime Wave as a spot-on visual time capsule of the 1950s LAPD milieu that informed the backdrop for the series of crime novels  referred to as his “L.A. quartet” (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). Fans of L.A. Confidential (the book and/or the movie) in particular will fall out of their chair like I did when Ellroy exclaims “That is Bud White!!” the first time Sterling Hayden’s world-weary, physically intimidating LAPD detective shambles onscreen.

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And then (hoo, boy) there’s Decoy (1946), which gets my vote for the closest thing to a David Lynch film prior to, well the moment David Lynch unleashed his first full-length feature film on an unsuspecting public. Featuring a truly demented performance from British actress Jean Gillie as one of the most psycho femme fatales ever (replete with an insane cackle that could de-calcify your spinal column at twenty paces), this mash-up of Body Heat with Re-animator defies description (although…I believe I just described it!).

Gillie masticates all available scenery as Margot Shelby, mastermind of a small gang of thieves, who comes up with an elaborate scheme to literally bring a former associate back from the dead immediately following his execution in the gas chamber (don’t ask) so she can put the squeeze on him and find out where he hid $400,000 (can’t call that a cliche narrative).

In order to get to that loot, Margot charms, uses and then unceremoniously discards a string of hapless male chumps in record time (the film runs less than 80 minutes). In the film’s most infamous scene, she runs over her lover, then just for giggles, backs up the car and runs over him again (remember, this movie predates Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by a good 20 years). A must see for genre diehards who think they’ve seen it all.

Warner is selling the five double feature discs in the box set “a la carte” as well; but they list at $20 each. I would recommend picking up the box set-Amazon and some of the brick and mortar retailers are selling the collection for around $40 (averaging out to $4.00 per title) making this set the bargain of the year for noir enthusiasts.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

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If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…

2 Rock Docs: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (***1/2) & The Mayor of the Sunset Strip (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2007)

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This week I’m spotlighting two recent rockumentaries of merit, both available on DVD. First up is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Iconoclastic musician Daniel Johnston’s life story is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream-a tragicomic Grimm’s fairy tale version of the American Success Story that plays like a cross between Dig and The Grey Gardens.

Throughout most of the 1980’s, Johnston’s prodigious output of homemade, self-distributed cassette-only albums went largely unnoticed until they were famously championed by Kurt Cobain, who helped make the unsigned artist a household name of sorts in alt/underground music circles.

Johnston has waged a balancing act between musical genius and rampant madness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson and Joe Meek). The film recounts a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, amassing an ever-growing grass roots following.

Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his piloting father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America!). The rest, as they say, is History. The film also delves into Johnston’s childlike, oddly compelling drawings and paintings, which recall the work of the bizarre, posthumously discovered artist Henry Darger (the subject of an equally fascinating documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal). By turns disturbing, darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a must-see.

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The Mayor of the Sunset Strip is another worthwhile rock doc for your consideration. An alternately exhilarating/melancholy portrait of L.A. music scene fixture Rodney Bingenheimer, it was directed by George Hickenlooper, who most recently helmed the Edie Sedgewick biopic, Factory Girl.

The diminutive, skittish and soft-spoken Bingenheimer comes off like Andy Warhol’s west coast doppelganger, or perhaps the Forest Gump of rock and roll. Somehow, he has been able to plant himself squarely in the hurricane’s eye of every major music “scene” since the mid-60’s…from Monkeemania (he worked a brief stint as Davy Jones’ double!) to present-day (becoming the first U.S. radio DJ to break current superstars Coldplay).

While it’s “about” Rodney, the film also serves as a whirlwind time trip through rock music’s evolution, filtered through a coked-out L.A. haze. The ongoing photo montages of Rodney posing with an A-Z roster of (seemingly) every major seminal figure in rock ’n’ roll history recalls Woody Allen’s fictional Alfred Zelig, a nondescript milquetoast who could morph himself to match whomever he was with at the time.

Throughout the course of the film, Rodney himself remains a cipher; in one very telling scene he fidgets nervously and begs Hickenlooper to turn off the camera when the questions get too “close”. There is also a sad irony-despite his ability to attract the company of the rich and famous (and they all appear to adore the man), the fruits of fame and success evade Rodney himself. He drives a an old beater to his DJ gig at L.A.’s legendary KROQ; he lives alone in a tiny, cluttered hovel, where treasured memorabilia like Elvis Presley’s first driver’s license collects dust next to the empty pizza boxes. Which begs the question: Is he a true “impresario”, or  a lottery-winning superfan?

The film is peppered with appearances and comments from the likes of music producer Kim Fowley (whose whacked-out music biz career warrants his own documentary), Pamela des Barres (legendary super-groupie and former member of Frank Zappa protégés The GTO’s) and her husband, actor-musician Michael des Barres (who steals the show with some priceless backstage tales). Brilliant!

Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown: Factory Girl **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 18, 2007)

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(This review is based on the “extended” director’s cut of the film that appears on the DVD; I have not screened the original theatrical version.)

One of the more interesting trends to emerge with the narrowing window between the moment a first-run film leaves the multiplex and its  DVD release is what I like to call the “auto repair cut” of box-office flops (“OK, I think I’ve found the problem -try starting it now.”)

Consider George Hickenlooper’s extended cut of Factory Girl, his biopic about the pin-up girl of the 1960s underground, Andy Warhol discovery Edie Sedgwick. Plagued by production problems and prematurely rushed into theaters late last year, the film did marginal box office, and was even less enthusiastically received by some of the surviving real-life participants in the Warhol Factory scene

Edie Sedgwick was the Paris Hilton of the 1960s; a trust fund babe imbued with no discernible talent aside from the ability to attract the paparazzi by associating with  the right people at just the right places at just the right time. Despite growing up as a child of privilege, Sedgwick’s childhood was less than idyllic (two of her brothers committed suicide and her mother was institutionalized).

She arrived in NYC in the mid 60s and was drawn to the downtown art scene, where she was  spotted by Warhol. Taken by herwaif-like beauty,  he vowed to make her a “superstar”. He featured her in his experimental films, and she became the iconic symbol of the “Factory”, where Warhol worked on his projects and played host to a co-op of avant-garde artists, musicians, actors and hangers-on.

Sedgwick fell from grace with Warhol when she became strung out on various substances and was financially cut off by her family. She sought treatment and cleaned up, only to tragically die of a drug overdose at age 28.

Hickenlooper’s  affection for the subject is evidenced in his canny visual replication of the 60s underground art scene; he alternates grainy, b&w film footage with saturated 16mm color stock and utilizes hand-held cinema verite shots, aping the look of Warhol’s own experimental films. The fashion, the music, and the overall vibe of the era is pretty much captured in a bottle here.

But what about the narrative? Ay, there’s the rub. The director’s pastiche plays like the Cliff’s Notes version of Warhol and Sedgwick’s partnership. A lot of things are left unexplained; peripheral characters come and go without exposition (it wasn’t until the credits rolled that I learned tidbits like “Oh, that was supposed to be Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground?”

In a narrative film, you can get away with creating bit parts like “Man #2 with suitcase” or “Crazy bag lady in subway”, but when you are dramatizing a true story…well, I think you see my point. (Ironically, the 30 minute documentary extra on the DVD, featuring recollections from friends and family. offers more insight into what made Sedgwick tick than the full length feature does).

You can’t fault the actors. Sienna Miller gives her all in the lead role and does an admirable job portraying the full arc of Edie’s transition from an innocent pixie, fresh from a pastoral country estate, to a haggard junkie, encamped in a dingy room at the Chelsea Hotel.

The always excellent Guy Pearce “becomes” Warhol. It’s not as easy as one might think to convincingly inhabit Warhol’s deadpan persona; actors have made valiant efforts (David Bowie, Jared Harris and Crispin Glover) but generally end up doing little more than donning a white wig and delivering a rote lank stares and signature catch phrases (“Umm, yeah. That’s great.” “Yeah, hi.”).

Even the traditionally wooden Hayden Christensen registers a pulse with his performance and delivers a  spirited impression of Bob Dylan. Sorry-did I say ‘Bob Dylan’? I meant to say, ‘Billy Quinn’ (as in “The Mighty Quinn”?), referred to as a “famous folk singer”.

Factory Girl is perhaps not quite as dismal as many have led you to believe, but it is still not as good as one might have hoped.

In dreams: Paprika (****) & The Lathe of Heaven (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 21, 2007)

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It’s no secret among fans of intelligent, adult sci-fi that some of the best genre films these days aren’t originating from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell display a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions  can touch (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the more adventurous anime directors is Satoshi Kon. In previous work like his TV miniseries Paranoia Agent, and in several feature films, Kon has displayed a flair for coupling complex characterization with photo-realistic visual style;  making me forget that I’m watching an anime. Most of Kon’s work has drawn on genres that one does not typically associate with anime: adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (Paranoia Agent) and character study (Millennium Actress). Kon’s latest, Paprika, is the first of his films that I would call “sci-fi”… and it’s a doozy.

A team of scientists develops an interface device called the “DC mini” that facilitates the transference of dreams from one person to another. This dream machine is designed primarily for use by psychotherapists; it allows them to literally experience a patient’s dreams and take a closer look under the hood. In the wrong hands, however, this could become a very dangerous tool.

As you have likely guessed, “someone” has hacked into a DC mini and begun to wreak havoc with people’s minds. One by one, members of the research team are driven to suicidal behavior after the dreams of patients are fed into their subconscious without their knowledge (akin to someone slipping acid into the punch).

Things get more complicated when these waking dreams begin taking sentient form and spread like a virus, forming a pervasive matrix that threatens to supplant “reality”. A homicide detective joins forces with one of the researchers, whose alter-ego, Paprika, is literally a “dream girl”, a sort of super-heroine of the subconscious.

“Mind-blowing” doesn’t begin to describe this Disney-on-acid/ sci-fi murder mystery, featuring  Kon’s most stunning use of color and imagery to date.  Kon raises some philosophical points (aside from the hoary “what is reality?” debate). At one point, Paprika ponders: “Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious vents.” Perhaps Kon is positing that the dream state is the last “sacred place” left for humans; if technology encroaches (any more than it already has) we will lose our last true refuge. A must-see for anime and sci-fi fans.

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While watching Paprika, I was reminded of one of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films, The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that  picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy. Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.