Tag Archives: 2010 Reviews

Blu-ray reissue: America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (box set) ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)

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America Lost and Found: The BBS Story – Criterion Blu-ray (6-disc set)

Back in the late 60s, Bob Rafelson, Burt Schneider and Steve Blauner capitalized on the success of their very profitable brainchild, The Monkees (referring to both the band and the associated hit TV series) by forming a movie production company called BBS Productions. The name may not ring a bell, but some of the films released by the company between 1968 and 1974 certainly will: Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. These are but three of the seven titles included in this collection from Criterion, which I would consider the box set of the year. Two genuine rarities are here as well-Drive, He Said (Jack Nicholson’s 1971 directorial debut), and the very first film by Henry Jaglom, A Safe Place.

For my money, the real jewels here are the Blu-ray debuts for Head, the surreal music-biz satire starring The Monkees, and Rafelson’s bittersweet character study about beautiful losers and the dark side of the American dream, The King of Marvin Gardens. In purely visual terms, the latter film is a revelation in this format; the transcendent camera work by the late great Laszlo Kovacs can now be fully appreciated. All of the prints are sparkling and beautifully restored, and feature commentary tracks. It’s a bit puzzling that they didn’t include one of the more notable BBS productions…the classic Vietnam doc, Hearts and Minds-but hey, you can’t have everything. This is still an essential collection of important American films.

Blu-ray reissue: Withnail and I ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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WIthnail and I – Starz Blu-ray

Writer-director Bruce Robinson’s 1987 study of two impoverished actors slogging through 1969 London with high hopes and low squalor has earned a devoted cult following (guilty as charged).

Richard E. Grant excels as the decadently wasted Withnail, ably supported by Paul McGann (he would be the “I”). The two flat mates, desperate for a break from their cramped, freezing apartment, take a trip to the country, where Withnail’s eccentric uncle (Richard Griffiths) keeps a cottage. There are so many quotable lines(“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!” or “I feel like a pig shat in my head.”). Ralph Brown nearly steals the film as Danny the drug dealer.

There are two Blu-Ray versions of this title; a “region-free” Starz UK release (the version I own) and a U.S. release by Image Entertainment. From what I have researched, the UK version has a slight edge on picture and sound. I can attest that the UK Blu-ray image is a vast improvement over Criterion’s  DVD.

Blu-ray reissue: Paris, Texas ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Paris, Texas – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In his career-best performance,  Stanton portrays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a crystalline transfer, and the dynamic audio does Ry Cooder’s mournful slide guitar proud.

Blu-ray reissue: Johnny Handsome ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Johnny Handsome – Lionsgate Blu-ray

Seconds meets Point Blank in this taut, nasty neo-noir from director Walter Hill, which is one of my favorite sleepers of the 1980s.

Mickey Rourke stars as the genetically deformed Johnny, a career criminal low-life with a knack for masterminding heists. As he nears the end of a prison stretch, he is offered reconstructive face surgery by an empathetic doctor (Forest Whitaker), who eventually helps him get paroled.

Johnny’s first order of business is planning some payback on his former partners, who set him up to take the fall. The trick will be how to do it while under the watchful eye of the cynical cop (Morgan Freeman) who originally put him away, and knows a recidivist when he sees one. Lance Henriksen and Ellen Barkin are the film’s guilty pleasure as a nihilistic couple who make Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers look like Ozzie and Harriet.

Screenwriter Ken Friedman adapted from John Godey’s novel. The Blu-ray release should earn this underrated gem new fans.

Blu-ray reissue: Death Race 2000 (1975) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Death Race 2000 – Shout! Factory Blu-ray

At first glance, Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult gem about a “futuristic” gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score points for running down pedestrians is an over-the-top black comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as broad political satire, or perhaps wry commentary  on that great American tradition of watching televised bloodsport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say -it’s never boring! David Carradine is a riot as defending race champ, “Frankenstein”. Also featured in the cast: Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul) and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. This Blu-ray is part of Shout! Factory’s “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series, with cherry-picked titles from the legendary “no-budget” producer’s inventory of 1970s and 1980s exploitation films. It’s debatable whether hi-def improves some of these curios, but most of them are cult buff catnip.

Blu-ray reissue: Crumb ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Crumb – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

So you thought your childhood was fucked up? Meet the Crumb family. Then shake your head in wonder that R. Crumb didn’t grow up to be a serial killer, as opposed to an underground comic icon. Director Terry Zwigoff’s propensity for championing the “outsider” (Ghost World, Bad Santa, Art School Confidential) was firmly established in this 1994 doc. Zwigoff toiled on his portrait of the artist for nearly a decade, and the result of his labor of love is at once hilarious, heartbreaking, outrageous and moving. Although the film looks to have been shot in 16mm, Criterion’s hi-def upgrade pays off most noticeably in the montages of Crumb’s classic Zap Comix panels and vivid artwork. There are some great new extras in this edition as well; most notably the 50+ minutes of deleted scenes.

Blu-ray reissue: Black Orpheus ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Black Orpheus – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsating rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s gorgeous samba soundtrack. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes. Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to the vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweetly innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things are bound to get ugly, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about.  A unique film that fully engages the senses (not to mention the fact that Mello and Dawn have got to be the most beautiful screen couple in the history of cinema). Criterion’s Blu-ray is outstanding.

Blu-ray reissue: Black Narcissus ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Black Narcissus – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

From a strictly narrative standpoint, The Archers (co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) certainly  made more coherent films during their illustrious career; but in purely visual terms, few as artfully directed, beautifully composed and gorgeously shot as this 1947 melodrama. While the histrionic performances and the torrid story line (concerning sexual panic among British nuns in an isolated Himalayan convent) may not have dated so well, the stunning photography by DP Jack Cardiff and art direction from Alfred Junge was made to order for the hi-def format (both scored Oscars for their work). Criterion does their usual voodoo with the picture transfer and the extras, which include an interesting commentary track featuring Powell and admirer Martin Scorsese.

Blu-ray reissue: The African Queen ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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The African Queen – Paramount Blu-ray

I think it’s safe to say that this 1951 film is a bona fide classic. What’s not to love about Bogie (as a coarse, drunken steamboat pilot) and Kate Hepburn (as an uptight missionary), thrown together in the heart of the Congo, fighting the river wild, jungle rot and Germans in a colorful WW I-era adventure-comedy-romance? Sure, it’s a total Hollywood fantasy, but with two charismatic performances, John Huston directing, and outstanding location photography by DP Jack Cardiff, who cares? Huston co-adapted the screenplay with James Agee from C.M. Forester’s novel. Paramount did a great job on the transfer; it’s the best the film has ever looked on the home screen.

Nice sweaters: Adieu to TV’s At The Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2010)

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Being a renowned film critic on the blogosphere, I am often stopped by strangers on the street; and if there is one question that I am inevitably going to be asked, it is this one:

“Sir? Would you know if the Route 27 bus stops here?”

Maybe after that question, the one I am most frequently asked is:

“What ever made you think other people might care about your opinions on cinema?”

Well, if you must pry (“I must! I must!”), there are a couple pop cultural touchstones that nudged me toward upgrading from Annoying Movie Geek Who Never Shuts Up at Parties to Aspiring Film Critic. First, there was this 1985 panel by Matt Groening:

Depending on your screen size, the graphics may not be 100% legible, but here’s the gist:

 Are you qualified to be a clever film critic?

  • Did you have no friends as a child?
  • Do you salivate at the smell of stale popcorn?
  • Do you thrill at the prospect of spending a career writing in-depth analyses of movies aimed at subliterate 15-year-olds?
  • Do you mind being loathed for your opinions?

The four types of clever film critics: Which do you aspire to be?

  • Academic type: boring, unreadable
  • Serious type: reveals endings
  • Daily type: nice plot summaries
  • TV clown: nice sweaters

For advanced clever film critics only:

Can you use “mise-en-scène” in a review that anyone will finish reading?

“Hey,” I thought, after passing milk and Cocoa Puffs through my nose, “I could do that!” Unfortunately, however, the internet hadn’t quite taken off yet, and if you wanted to be a clever film critic you still had to try to get a job at like, an actual newspaper or something. Besides, I was too busy at the time chasing a broadcasting career (funnily enough, after 35 years in the business, I’m still “chasing” it).

All kidding aside, there was a more significant touchstone for me, which preceded Groening’s satirical yet weirdly empowering observations. In the late 70s, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on “first-run” features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Also keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and the video stores were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional screenings of midnight movies at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV, but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my fellow culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where they had more theaters.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael, and thinking they had a pretty cool gig; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to be taken seriously as a film critic (most of those films just didn’t make it out to the sticks).

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Then, in 1978, our local PBS television affiliate began carrying a bi-weekly 30-minute program called Sneak Previews. Now here was something kind of interesting; a couple of guys (kind of scruffy lookin’) casually bantering about current films-who actually seemed to know their shit. You might even think they were professional movie critics…which it turned out they were.

In fact, they were professional rivals; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wrote for competing Chicago dailies, the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune . This underlying tension between the pair was always bubbling just under the surface, but imbued the show with an interesting dynamic (especially when they disagreed on a film).

Still, I always got a vibe that they treated each other with respect (if begrudging at times) and most importantly, treated the viewers with respect as well. You never felt like they were talking above your head, like some of the traditional film essayists who were “boring, unreadable” (as Matt Groening describes the “academic types” in his panel above). Nor did they condescend, either.

This is where I part ways with Groening; his “TV clowns” reference above is clearly directed at Siskel & Ebert, but I would reserve that description for someone more along the lines of a Gene Shalit. One thing these two did share was an obvious and genuine love and respect for the art of cinema; and long before the advent of the internet, I think they were instrumental in razing the ivory towers and demystifying the art of film criticism (especially for culturally starved yahoos like me, living on the frozen tundra).

Last weekend, with minimal fanfare, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, the most recent hosts of At the Movies (the long-running weekly syndicated review show that Siskel & Ebert created after they parted ways with the producers of Sneak Previews back in 1982) each gave their farewell soliloquy and quietly closed up the balcony for good.

That’s too bad, because during their relatively brief tenure, Scott and Phillips brought an erudite and thoughtful discourse to the show that had been sorely lacking for some time. To be sure, the program went through a lot of personnel changes over the years, and not always for the best (would it be tacky to mention Ben Lyons by name?). Although Ebert remained a stalwart fixture until health issues precipitated his 2006 departure, I thought that the show never quite recovered from the absence of Siskel (who died in 1999).

As Scott and Phillips rolled a collage of vintage Siskel & Ebert clips, I found myself unexpectedly choking up a little. Granted, the model pioneered by Siskel and Ebert may now seem staid and hoary in the era of Rotten Tomatoes, but its historical importance and effect on some of us “of a certain age” cannot be overlooked.

So Roger, should you happen to be reading this (not likely, but I can dream, can’t I?) and to Gene, wherever you may be, somewhere out there in the ether: FWIW, I humbly offer my two enthusiastic thumbs up.