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Denofcinema.com: Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

(Late) Saturday Night At The Movies

Stocking Stuffers: Vintage reels for your Xmas creel

By Dennis Hartley

It’s that time of year- for the obligatory Top 10 lists. This week, I thought I would share some of my favorite “back catalog” DVD reissues for 2008, and perhaps give you last-minute procrastinators some gift ideas for the discerning cinema buff on your list (BTW if you do click a movie link from this site and end up making a purchase, you will also be helping your favorite starving bloggers get a little something more than just a lump of coal in their Hanukkah stockings in these harsh economic times… *cough* … *wink*).

We’ve had a fair amount of “wish list” fulfillment this year, with some rarities making their belated debut on DVD, amongst the inevitable “Definitive Remastering of the Previously Ultimate Restored and Remastered” versions (what’s an obsessive-compulsive/completist to do-buy that new box set, or pay the rent? Oh, the humanity!).

So here are my picks for the top 10 of the year (in no particular ranking order)…

The Godfather - The Coppola Restoration Giftset DVD- “I believe in America.” And so begins the single most essential “desert island” film trilogy to own for even the most casual of DVD collectors; and a requisite semi-annual “unplug the phone and don’t answer the door” 10-hour marathon for anyone claiming to be a serious film geek. OK, I hear you-maybe “III” is not so essential; admittedly it has its problems (mostly due to an ill-advised nepotistic casting choice for a key role) but you gotta know how the story ends…capice, pasian? At any rate, this newly restored box set finally does justice to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterwork (although you are still best served by catching a revival print in a theatre for the ultimate appreciation). The moody, autumnal cinematography by Gordon Willis has never looked this rich on the home screen; the artful symbiosis between his striking chiaroscuro tonality and the ace production design by Dean Tavoularis is well served by the restoration (especially in the first two films).

Touch Of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition)- Yes, this is the sleaze-noir Orson Welles classic with THAT famous tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most hideous grotesquerie Welles ever created as an actor, and certainly stands as one the most unique and complex heavies in all of film noir. The film features one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich, who gets all the best lines (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh gets terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by an ultra-creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been directed by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are simply light-years ahead of anything else going on in filmmaking at the time (1958). Fans of the film have had to make do with an improperly matted and cropped DVD transfer-until now. Not only have those screen ratio issues been corrected, but we are also given 3 different cuts of the film in this new edition: the restored and re-edited 1998 version (re-cut to the specifications that Welles had requested in a 58-page memo to the studio that ultimately fell on deaf ears), the original theatrical version, and the preview version (which has a commentary track with Heston and Leigh). Extras galore.

I, Claudius-And you thought Don Corleone had a (murderously) dysfunctional family…wait ‘til you meet the Claudians! They’re all here, from Augustus to Nero, as seen through the eyes of the Roman emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi). An incisive, highly intelligent script (adapted by Jack Pulman, from the Robert Graves novels) and an outstanding cast of accomplished British thespians (many hailing from the Royal Shakespeare Company) more than make up for the semi-cheesy soundstage bound production design. It may not be 100% historically accurate (there’s an awful lot of room for speculation), but its 101% entertaining. Although this watershed BBC miniseries was previously available on DVD, the quality of the transfer was a bit dubious. However, it has now been spiffed up quite nicely with a 2008 digital remastering. The sound is much improved, and after doing an A/B comparison, I can attest that the picture now looks as good as it is ever going to (considering that it was originally mastered on video in 1976).

$ (Dollars)-This lesser-known Warren Beatty/Goldie Hawn vehicle (from 1971) has been languishing in the vaults for a quite a while, and is due for rediscovery. Beatty is a bank security expert who uses inside “pillow talk” info provided by his hooker girlfriend (Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch three safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank that she has confirmed as belonging to people associated with criminal enterprises (what are they going to do-go to the police for help?). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter. What sets this film apart from standard heist capers is its unique chase sequence, which seems to run through most of Germany and takes up a whopping 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great score from Quincy Jones, too. This DVD is part of a new series of reissues from Sony Pictures, which they have curiously labeled “Martini Movies”. The first batch of five (released concurrently) includes The Anderson Tapes (highly recommended), The New Centurions, The Garment Jungle and Affair in Trinidad.

Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith-I had just about abandoned all hope that this 1978 sleeper from Australian writer-director Fred Schepisi would ever see the light of day on DVD, until I was pleasantly surprised to see it pop up on the “new release” rack of my favorite neighborhood independent video store last month (I quickly snapped up the last copy). Adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel (which was inspired by true events) this semi-epic tale concerns the travails of the title character, played with explosive intensity by non-professional actor Tommy Lewis. Jimmie is a half-caste Aboriginal, living in New South Wales in 1900. He struggles between the pull of his native culture and the insistence of white sponsors who want him to “do the right thing” and assimilate into “civilized” society. This is easier said than done; it seems that the harder he tries to please everyone, the more he is shunned by all. Jimmie sublimates his reaction to the enveloping systemic racism and roiling inner conflicts for too long, which eventually leads to a shocking explosion of violence. This is raw, powerful and disturbing stuff (not for the squeamish), but well worth your time. The DVD includes a recent interview with Lewis.

The Boys in the Band- William Friedkin’s groundbreaking 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s off-Broadway play has made its belated DVD debut in 2008. A group of gay friends gather to celebrate a birthday, and as the booze starts to flow, the fur begins to fly. Even though it may not seem as “bold” or “daring” as it was to viewers nearly 40 years ago, the hard truths about human nature revealed here remain universal and timeless, transcending sexual preference or lifestyle choice. I consider this one of the best American dramas of 70s cinema, period. This was the Glengarry Glen Ross of its day; a wickedly acidic verbal jousting match delivered by a crackerjack acting ensemble in such finely tuned synchronization that you could set a metronome to the performances. The film is also unique for enlisting the entire original stage cast to recreate their roles onscreen. The DVD features an enlightening commentary track from the always-chatty Friedkin, plus three featurettes including present-day interviews with two of the surviving cast members (sadly, we learn all principal actors save for three have since passed away). Warning: Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” will be playing in your head for days.

The Day of the Outlaw- When this film was originally released in 1959, the posters screamed “Out of the blizzard came the most feared killers who ever took over a town!” A tough, gritty and stark film noir, cleverly disguised as a western. Directed by the late Andre de Toth (House of Wax), who had a propensity for creating evocatively atmospheric B-films that belied their low budgets (like the 1954 film noir Crime Wave, which I reviewed here.) Robert Ryan plays a hard-ass cattle rancher who is at odds with (surprise!) one of the neighboring farmers. Complicating things further is the fact that he has the hots for his rival’s wife, who is played by sexy Tina Louise (the Movie Star!). Just when you think this is going to turn into another illustration as to why the Farmer and the Cowman cain’t be fray-ends, the story heads into proto-Tarantino territory when some very nasty outlaws ride into town, led by Burl Ives. Ives is not so holly-jolly in this role; he convincingly plays a truly vile bastard. The general nastiness that ensues, set in an unforgiving wintry Wyoming landscape, may have influenced the equally strange 1968 spaghetti western, The Great Silence. The DVD has no frills, but sports a good transfer.

Serial- Well, there’s good news and bad news here. The good news, of course is that this 1980 comedy gem starring Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld has finally been released on DVD. The bad news is that after the interminable wait, the releasing studio has done a less-than-stellar job with the transfer. The picture is adequate (and enhanced for 16x9) but really not that much of an improvement over previous VHS versions; the audio could have stood at least a minimum of EQ tweaking (it’s a bit muffled and thin). So why am I still recommending it? Because it’s a truly hilarious satire of California trendies, featuring a crack ensemble of screen comedy pros (Sally Kellerman, Tommy Smothers, Peter Bonerz, Bill Macy). Based on Cyra McFadden’s 1977 book, the film is a pre-cursor to Michael Tolkin’s excellent 1994 L.A. satire, The New Age (which remains MIA on DVD, much to my chagrin). Serial takes a brisk stroll through California Yuppie Hell, with its barbs aimed at the late 70s Marin County crowd. Psycho-babblers blather, hot tubs gurgle, and razor-sharp one-liners are dispensed between gulps of white wine and bites of Brie. Almost worth the price of admission alone: Christopher Lee as a gay biker!

The Ritz-Everything’s coming up sunshine and Santa Claus! I would suspect that lots of folks have been waiting for this film to come out of the vaults (closet?). I’m usually not a fan of broadly comic, door-slamming farce (is it necessary for the actors to always scream their lines?)-but I do make an exception for Richard Lester’s 1976 film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s stage play, because it always puts me in stitches, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Jack Weston plays a N.Y.C. businessman on the run from the mob, who decides to seek temporary asylum in what he figures will be the last place on earth that the hit men would think of to search for him-a gay bath house. And yes, hilarity ensues. The dynamite cast includes F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, and Treat Williams as a private detective with a very interesting speaking voice. They are all excellent, but ultimately become overshadowed by the lady who absolutely steals the movie-Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez, a sort of female version of Bill Murray’s cheesy lounge act character on those old SNL episodes. I have learned from experience to be sure NOT to be sipping a beverage or munching a snack when Googie launches into her interpretation of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, because otherwise, I will be passing some form of matter through my nose. The DVD features an excellent transfer.

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains-Finally, we have a proper DVD release of this coveted, oft-bootlegged 1981 curio, which was initially shelved from theatrical distribution but managed to build a rabidly devoted cult base, thanks to several showings on USA Network’s “Night Flight” back in the day. As a narrative, this effort from legendary record mogul turned (sort of) movie director Lou Adler would have benefited immensely from some script doctoring (Slap Shot scripter Nancy Dowd is off her game here) but for punk/new wave nostalgia junkies, it’s still a marvelous time capsule. Diane Lane plays a nihilistic mall rat who decides to break out of the ‘burbs by forming an all-female punk band called The Stains. Armed with a mission statement (“We don’t put out!”) and a stage look that appears to have been co-opted from Divine in Pink Flamingos, this proto riot-grrl outfit sets out to conquer the world (and learn to play their instruments along the way). Music biz/star maker machinery clichés abound, but it’s still a guilty pleasure, particularly due to the real-life rock luminaries in the cast. Fee Waybill (surprisingly effective) and Vince Welnick of The Tubes are a hoot as a couple of washed up glam rockers. The fictional punk band, The Looters (fronted by none other than an angry young Ray Winstone) features the talents of Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. There’s also a memorable cameo by Black Randy (“Who?”) Well, he’s exciting to “deep catalogue” geeks like me (what can I say?).