Saturday, March 8, 2014
Shout Factory has come out with another collector's edition Blu-ray of a 80s/90s cult genre film. This time it's Sam Raimi's DARKMAN (1990). The film was writer/director Raimi's first major studio project, and it is still more entertaining than Raimi's more "important" recent work.
Made between EVIL DEAD 2 and ARMY OF DARKNESS, DARKMAN was created by Raimi to serve as the basis of a comic book/superhero story. A brilliant scientist (Liam Neeson) is savagely attacked and left for dead by gangsters. The scientist survives, but in a horribly disfigured state. He uses his research into producing artificial skin to enable him to become just about anyone he wants, and getting revenge on his enemies.
DARKMAN is more of a dark revenge fable instead of a straight comic-book story. The Darkman isn't interested in fighting crime--he's just trying to get back at those who ruined his life. There's a lot of horror/noir elements in this film, mixed in with Raimi's love for goofy slapstick humor and grotesque cartoonish violence. The result is a very unique movie, made even more so by the leads being played by Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand (not exactly the type of actors you would expect in a story such as this).
The Shout Factory Blu-ray of DARKMAN has a lot of extras, including new interviews with actors Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake, Dan Bell, and Danny Hicks. The talk with Liam Neeson isn't very long (only about 7 minutes), but it's nice that Neeson looks back on the role fondly, and agreed to be on the Blu-ray. There's also features with production designer Randy Ser, art director Philip Dagort, and makeup artist Tony Gardner which go into the challenges of making the film (even though this was a major step up budget-wise for Sam Raimi, it still was not a very expensive picture).
The audio commentary features director of photography Bill Pope. DARKMAN was Pope's first film as a DOP (he would later work on THE MATRIX films and SPIDERMAN 2 & 3). Pope gives a lot of insight in what it was like working for Raimi, and the various non-CGI tricks used in the film.
The Blu-ray also includes interviews & material from when DARKMAN was first released. What the extras do not have is anything new from Sam Raimi himself--kind of surprising, considering that Raimi is usually all over the extras on the video releases of his other films.
Unfortunately the picture quality of this Blu-ray is somewhat disappointing. It's not terrible, but it isn't that much of an improvement over the look of the DARKMAN DVD. The 5.1 DTS sound mix is impressive, showcasing Danny Elfman's excellent music score.
As I have stated before, since DARKMAN Sam Raimi has gone on to make a lot of more famous pictures--but I still think his first major studio effort is more memorable.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
One of the films most requested to be released on DVD is Universal's 1936 version of the famed Broadway musical, SHOW BOAT. The Warner Archive Collection has now made a lot of film buffs happy by finally putting out the movie through their made-to-order line.
SHOW BOAT had already been made once by Universal in 1929 as a silent with some talkie sequences (I'd love to watch that version just to see how they tried to pull that off). Universal went out of its way to make the 1936 version a super-spectacular. The studio gave the project to its top director, James Whale (best known for FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), and cast several stars who had made appearances on the stage version of SHOW BOAT at one time or another.
I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to movie musicals, but aficionados of the genre consider the 1936 SHOW BOAT the best out of all three total film versions of the story, and some believe it is one of the best cinematic musicals of all time.
When MGM made their own version of SHOW BOAT years later, they bought the rights to the other versions, and the 1936 production became almost a lost film (the same thing happened to Universal's and James Whale's film of WATERLOO BRIDGE when MGM remade that as well). TCM has shown the '36 film from time to time, but fans have been clamoring for its home video release for years. There were internet rumors that all three versions would be released as a Blu-ray set, but apparently that's not going to happen now.
Usually any product from the Warner Archive Collection is a DVD-R--which means that the quality will not be as good as a regular DVD. I'm happy to say that my copy of SHOW BOAT is a regular DVD. If you go to the Warner Archive ordering page for this film, it says that due to the anticipated high demand, initial orders will be traditionally pressed DVDs. So if you want to get a good copy of this, you'd better order it right away.
The Warner Archive site also says that SHOW BOAT has been remastered. The picture quality is okay, but the sound quality is excellent, even though it is in mono. There are no extras, which is a shame, because a movie like this calls out for something like a documentary detailing the history of its production, or at least an audio commentary from someone who is an expert on Universal Studios during the 1930s, such as Gregory Mank.
There's a ton of highlights in this musical....the songs of Oscar Hammerstein & Jerome Kern, the performances of Irene Dunne (who should have been nominated for an Oscar) and Helen Morgan, and of course the justly celebrated rendition of "Ol' Man River" by Paul Robeson. But it is the brilliant work of James Whale that puts this movie over the top. For example, the "Ol' Man River" sequence would be stunning just for the singing of Robeson alone--but Whale's visual staging makes it one of the greatest moments in movie musical history. Whale himself should have been Oscar nominated for his directorial work here.
Kudos to the Warner Archive Collection for releasing this film, and extras kudos for also releasing it on to regular DVD (for a while, anyway). I predict it will wind up being one of the best sellers in the entire Warner Archive home video collection.
Monday, March 3, 2014
In recent years, Alec Baldwin has gone the William Shatner route and turned into a bloated parody of himself. It wasn't that long ago that Baldwin was considered an "A" list Hollywood leading man. He even played the lead in a "sort of" superhero movie--the almost forgotten THE SHADOW (1994), which has just come out on a special edition Blu-ray from Shout Factory.
THE SHADOW was produced by Universal, and the studio hoped that it would be a big summer blockbuster and maybe even start a series. The movie was directed by Russell Mulcahy (HIGHLANDER), and the script was written by David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK). The impressive supporting cast included such names as John Lone, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, and Ian McKellen (who had not yet had his 21st Century mainstream success).
THE SHADOW has a lot in common with other superhero/comic book movies of the period like THE ROCKETEER and DICK TRACY. It's set in the 1930s (1936, to be exact....in the background of one of the scenes there's a movie theater marquee advertising THE INVISIBLE RAY) and the production design and the costumes are more interesting than the plot or most of the characters. This film also has some similarities to Tim Burton's BATMAN (remember that BATMAN has a very 30s/40s feel to it). The Shadow's alter ego, Lamont Cranston, has a lot of Bruce Wayne in him, and Jerry Goldsmith's music score for THE SHADOW sounds very Danny Elfman-like.
Alec Baldwin actually does a fine job in the title role. A lot of that has to do with his natural persona (if any actor fits the definition of the word "smug", it's Alec Baldwin). The Shadow has a dark side to him (the movie shows that Lamont Cranston was somewhat of a super-villain himself once), and Baldwin is able to use his unique voice to convince the audience that he has the power to "cloud men's minds" (even though on the screen he seems like he's using Jedi mind tricks).
John Lone plays Shiwan Khan, the film's bad guy. Shiwan is the last descendant of Genghis Khan and is planning to take over the world with the help of an early version of the atomic bomb. Shiwan Khan is one of the movie's biggest problems. He comes off as being a bit silly instead of dangerous. It's not the fault of the actor--the script doesn't give the character much to do. Shiwan Khan is supposed to have the same powers as the Shadow, but those powers (and their limitations) are left somewhat vague, so the viewer is left wondering about some of the plot points.
Penelope Ann Miller (what ever happened to her?) plays the Shadow's love interest, Margo Lane. Miller looks fantastic in a 1930's style wardrobe, but this is another character that is underwritten and fails to become interesting. One of the sub-plots of the film is that somehow Margo Lane has a psychic connection with the Shadow, which means she finds out who he really is (what's a comic book/superhero movie without the lead character's secret identity being revealed?).
Russell Mulcahy does give the film some nice visual moments. When Baldwin is the Shadow, he looks great, with a fine costume design and some facial makeup. Unfortunately, the Shadow doesn't appear all that much. Even in the climax of the film (which is a take-off of the mirrors sequence in the ending of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI) we see more Lamont Cranston instead of the Shadow. The entire film looks stunning, but the story is a little thin, and 1994 audiences just didn't seem to respond to it all that well.
Shout Factory's new Blu-ray contains a 23-minute extra on the making of the film, with new interviews with Alec Baldwin, Russell Mulcahy, Penelope Ann Miller, David Koepp, Production Designer Joseph Nemec III, and Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum. It was quite a feat for Shout Factory to get all these people talking on camera, but one wishes that the running time had been longer, and the interviews had gone into more depth about the production. There's also a trailer and a photo gallery.
One other thing I'd like to point out....this movie made me think of....BATMAN BEGINS. Both THE SHADOW and BATMAN BEGINS start in Central Asia, with a lead character who is a "lost soul". Both characters are trained to find their "true selves" at a mysterious monastery, and after a multi-year absence, they both return to their crime-ridden big city hometowns to fight evil. I'm certainly not suggesting that Christopher Nolan was in any way influenced by THE SHADOW. It's just something I noticed for myself.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Last fall I wrote a blog post on how impressed I was upon seeing GRAVITY on the big screen. I was hoping that when the movie came out on home video, there would be supplements and extra features explaining how the production was made. Most Blu-rays of recently released films have very little extra content, and usually that content is nothing more than promotional fluff pieces.
I'm happy to say that the standard (non-3-D) Blu-ray version of GRAVITY has about three hours of features detailing all the work that went into making the film. All of this information is pretty fascinating to a film geek like me. Most of what takes place in GRAVITY is CGI-rendered--but it is CGI with a purpose. The CGI serves the story, not the other way around. Various new FX techniques were used in the making of GRAVITY, including practical elements such as brand-new wire rigging.
For the most part the extra features avoid the typical routines such as people sitting on the set saying things like "I'm so impressed with the director's vision!" and "This is such a great project!!". There is some of that when Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are talking (I'm convinced that actors have trained themselves to say the same exact things for any Blu-ray/DVD documentary). There's a lot of technical stuff involved, but the features are done in such a way that the general audience can understand and appreciate what had to be done to get the story filmed properly.
GRAVITY of course looks fantastic on Blu-ray, but it is still a film meant to be seen in a theater. Anyone who loves this film and wonders how it was produced should pick up this Blu-ray. I get the feeling, though, that if GRAVITY cleans up at the Oscars, there's going to be a future super-duper home video release with even more extras and background material. It's too bad that Cinefantastique magazine doesn't exist anymore--GRAVITY would have been perfect for an all-issue special.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
The other day I was watching my DVD of MAJOR DUNDEE, Sam Peckinpah's flawed Western epic. The DVD version I have of this picture contains scenes not included in the theatrical release. Which made me wonder--what is the "official" version of the film...if there is such a thing?
Just about every movie that gets released to home video now has extra scenes, or an "alternate cut", or an "extended edition", or a "directors version" of the film. The real reason for this is to get people to buy or rent the film--"You haven't really seen it until you've seen the unedited version!!!" Most of these extra editions don't really add anything new or change the film in a significant way....but some of them do present major changes to the story or the tone of the production.
And there's the problem. If you are writing a blog about a film, or writing a review, or just telling a friend about a certain movie, you have to figure out what version of the picture you are going to be discussing in the first place. And there can be several. There's about five versions of BLADE RUNNER, about three versions of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, three versions of STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE, and so on and so on. Most people who write about movies seem to pick the general theatrical release as the "real" version--but what if more viewers have seen a home video version which is vastly different? Take STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE. It first came out in 1979, which means that there is an entire generation of Star Trek fans who have never seen that film in a theater. Until recently the available home video versions were far different than the theatrical release--which means that more people have seen the alternate versions of ST-TMP instead of the original one. Does that mean the original doesn't count?
STAR WARS is of course the most famous example. Millions and millions of fans have never seen the original versions in a theater. I'm sure some will say, "What's the difference?" Well, ask anyone who has actually made a film how much difference one editing decision can make.
There's a whole bunch of other problems when you get to silent films. Most silents are in the public domain, which means that anyone who can get their hands on a copy of a certain movie can slap it on a disc and sell it. This means that for a movie like NOSFERATU, there are literally dozens and dozens of DVD versions, all with various running times, and music scores. Some silent films on DVD and Blu-ray have been tinted, some have multiple music scores. Technically each one of these is a different version of the film. For those who say the music score for a silent movie isn't all that important--it's incredibly important, and can dramatically alter how you perceive the film.
I have Comcast cable, which means I have acess to Xfinity On Demand. It's now gotten to the point where each time a new movie pops up on Xfinity for rent, it has two versions...the "original" and the "extended" version.
And...let's not forget that when a broadcast channel shows a feature film, it is usually edited and time compressed, which means it is speeded up to fit into a certain time slot. (You are not supposed to notice time compression, but every so often I'll be watching an old Western on AMC, and some of the actors' voices sound a bit high-pitched.) Technically....that's a different version of the movie, too.
So what is the official version of a certain film? Is it the so-called "Director's Cut"? Well...what about the screenwriter, who may have come up with the actual story? What about his or her version? What about the producer, who may have come up with the idea to make the film in the first place? There are hundreds and hundreds of people who work on a major feature film, and I bet each one of them has their own version of what the film should have turned out to be.
The problem with "Director's Cuts" is that directors have a tendency to change their minds, just like anyone else who has any sense of creativity. You can write something, or paint something, or create something, and think you did a great job....and then a couple years later look at it and think it was terrible. Can a movie ever really be finished? Some directors will say never (see George Lucas). I've seen plenty of "Director's Cuts" that didn't improve the film whatsoever. But who has the right to say that a director (or a producer) should stop working on a film and leave it alone?
One more thing about "Director's Cuts". Recently there have been several films--like MAJOR DUNDEE--where the director has long since passed away, but others have supposedly tried to rework the film to what the late director apparently wanted. If the director isn't around, how can you be 100% sure that this is the director's vision?
Whenever I write a blog about a certain film, I try to acknowledge what version of said film I am talking about, and what format I've seen it on (and if I don't, please let me know). Films have so many versions, and so many formats (I haven't even gotten to 3-D, and IMAX) that it's almost impossible to say what is the "real" version. I guess in the end the "real" version is the one that means the most to the individual viewer.
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Last week the legendary Svengoolie (you can see him on various Me TV stations across the USA on Saturday nights) showed KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Of course this was the American version of the film. Due to complex rights issues, the Japanese version cannot be shown on American television, or be released to American home video. Toho Studios made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, and the American version of the film was released by Universal, which still has the U. S. rights (Universal is going to release the American version of the film on Blu-ray later this year, to coincide with the GODZILLA theatrical remake).
You can, however, go on Ebay and get a copy of the Japanese version, if you so desire. Seeing KKVG again inspired me to finally do so. You have to watch out when you order a DVD on Ebay--you have to watch out when you order anything on Ebay--but the copy I got had good sound and picture quality, English subtitles, and it actually worked (which is always a good thing).
The Japanese version runs 97 minutes long, as opposed to the 90 running time of the US version. The original version does not have the silly UN TV reporters, and has a bit more scenes featuring the human characters (which will disappoint some fans). We get more "comedy" from the goofy Mr. Tako--but we also get to see more of Japanese hotties Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayshi (who would both later appear in the James Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE).
While some of the Japanese dialogue is very different from the dubbed dialogue of the American version, there are a lot of scenes where the lines are exactly the same. The biggest difference between the two versions of KKVG is that the Japanese one has more depth to it--in the character development, and especially in how the authorities deal with the monsters. In the American edition it appears as if the Japanese officials have thrown together a monster-fighting plan in about five minutes--they talk about using electrical towers to stop Godzilla, and boom, there they are. In the Japanese edition, there are more scenes of those great miniature machines going around and building everything used to stop Godzilla. The sequence involving the lifting of King Kong with wire and balloons is lengthier as well.
What the American version is really missing is the original musical score by Akira Ifukube. Ifukube was to Toho Studios as James Bernard was to Hammer Films. His score (which I have on CD--yeah, it's me) gives the Japanese version the only dramatic weight it really has. The American version has a score made up of various musical cues from 1950s Universal Westerns and horror films--if you listen close you can hear several cues from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
For a long time there have been rumors that the Japanese version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA had a different ending than the American version. When I first started getting into monster movies as a kid, I read about this "fact" in several books. The real fact is that the endings are the same. After Kong and Godzilla destroy the Osaka castle, they both fall into the sea, where Godzilla disappears, and Kong is seen swimming away, presumably back to his home on Faro Island. In the American edition, you do hear Kong's roar at the end, apparently signaling that Kong won the battle. In the Japanese edition, you hear the roars of both monsters--maybe that's where the different endings rumor started.
No matter what version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is shown, I have to admit that the film itself is a bit of a letdown. The whole subplot about the "magic berries" of Faro Island, and the goofy Mr. Tako's company wanting to sell the berries and use King Kong in an ad campaign, is silly. Having two male leads, on two separate ships, takes up too much of the story. Poor Mie Hama gets chased by both King Kong AND Godzilla (a monster movie heroine record). And the King Kong suit is...lousy. This is one time where Eiji Tsuburaya's FX team didn't get the job done. The Kong suit looks as if it was made out of an old rug that you would find in your Grandma's attic. The special articulated Kong head used for close-ups looks even worse. (King Kong wouldn't look any better in Toho's later KING KONG ESCAPES.)
The battles between Kong and Godzilla are spectacular, but they are also somewhat dopey. The monster-fighting scenes would improve over the course of the future Godzilla films. You expect a lot out of a film like KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, but it just doesn't live up to its premise. The next film in the series, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, is way better. If you ever get a chance to see the Japanese version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, do it. It's a bit of an improvement over the American version....but not much.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
If you are a World War II buff, you are probably aware of the "Monuments Men", a special group formed during the conflict to retrieve and protect the various art treasures looted by Nazi Germany. There's been a best-selling book written about them (which I have not read), and a number of magazine articles.
Now comes George Clooney's cinematic take on the group. This is a personal project for him--he's the star, the director, and the co-producer and co-writer. Clooney has assembled an impressive cast list: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (Best Actor Oscar winner for THE ARTIST), Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.
THE MONUMENTS MEN does not really have a straight narrative--it's more of a series of small vignettes as the group travels around war-torn Europe in search of priceless relics. A lot of these scenes contain a fair amount of typical war movie tropes, and Clooney injects a lot of light humor in the story. The movie goes along at a pretty quick pace--so much so that we really don't get to know all that much about the individual men or their backgrounds (we assume that all the members of the group are experts of some kind, but they never really get much of a chance to show their expertise).
The only real female character in the film is Cate Blanchett's mysterious French museum curator. Blanchett has the most interesting role, and she spends almost all of it wearing glasses, and with her hair pulled back. This leads to a scene where--you guessed it--she gets dolled up, takes her glasses off, and lets her hair down (I have to admit I groaned when I saw her do this--nothing against Cate Blanchett all dolled up, but that's one of the most obvious movie moments).
THE MONUMENTS MEN is not a slam-bang battlefield epic, or a gut-wrenching realistic war drama. It's a different kind of WWII film (even though it has some of the cliches of the genre), in that the heroes are trying to find stolen art. Clooney does do a good job in explaining why this group, and what they did, was important. Some may think that this movie is not dramatic enough. I wouldn't say that it is a great film, but I do have to give George Clooney credit for making a production about this subject, and also for making a movie that adults can take older children to see (there's no excessive violence or language in the picture). Overall, it's a decent, honest effort....but I have a feeling that a documentary about the real Monuments Men would be a lot more fascinating.