Friday, June 25, 2010

Popdose: An Owl and a Peacock

Birds of a feather flock together this week--two well-cast psychological thrillers, The Cry of the Owl and Peacock, that went straight to DVD. Do they deserve a chance to spread their wings?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beat The Devils

If you've been following my Twitter feed you know The Devils, briefly available on iTunes, has been withdrawn. No explanation was given, but I'm not smelling some censorship scandal. Warner Bros, did put the 103-minute version out on VHS in 1995, so it has some history with the title, and I assume its reappearance in a form unseen since the early 70s means some sort of DVD release is in the offing. More likely, as has been suggested, WB's digital distribution team jumped the gun and placed it on ITunes unthinkingly.

This morning I got a Facebook message from a person asking if I could send the file I had purchased to him. I was leery of this, and put off altogether when he said he would then place it on one of those dubious file sharing sites for the cultural good. I'm no angel--I've purchased plenty of gray-market tapes and DVD-Rs from as-reputable-as-possible sources, sometimes in near-unwatchable form. You get what you pay for, and sometimes a lot less. My purchases include that bootleg of the UK Devils telecast I had previously mentioned.

But here we have a pristine copy that, if released, may discourage WB from ever putting it out. And that would be a tragedy. I'm upset that the studio hasn't put it out, either, particularly when there's a Russell commentary available to go with it. But I'm willing to wait for the best possible presentation, and see my file as a bridge to that. I'd gladly give it up for a disc, as I have my gray-market boots when better became legitimately available. How many others ripping it off "Pirate Bay" can say the same?

One more thing: Maybe iTunes will zap my file and I'll get issued a credit, rendering the whole thing moot. And another: Russell will be presenting what's said to be the 111-minute cut from July 31-Aug. 1 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, part of a nine-film retrospective. Hmm, that's getting a lot of circulation these days; maybe I'm a little self-satisfied owning my 108-minute version.

Mann of the West

And the Midwest, the East, the Roman Empire; wherever there was trouble in the air, his restless cameras found it. Undervalued in his own time his reputation has only grown, and beginning Friday Film Forum serves up 32 highlights from one of the coolest and most galvanizing of Hollywood filmmakers. It's hard to go wrong here; well, maybe The Heroes of Telemark (1965), his last, fully completed film, or the stodgy Cimarron (1960), or the bumpy, strenuously off-color God's Little Acre (1958). But the growing and stretching, the David Lean-ness of much of his late career, wasn't entirely misguided: El Cid (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire are vivid pagaentry, with flesh-and-blood centers. He never left behind the sinew of human existence, so challenged in all his great noirs and Westerns. My favorites: The Furies (Barbara Stanwyck is pictured in its great, shocking moment), Border Incident, Devil's Doorway, Raw Deal, Winchester '73, Man of the West, The Tall Target, Side Street, Reign of Terror...practically a treat a day. Fun fact: My wife and I got engaged after we saw Roman Empire.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer of '85

I've visited The House Next Door (now the official blog of Slant Magazine) since it opened for visitors, so I was happy to contribute to its ongoing anniversary series. A View to a Kill, a Bond bellyflop, proved a lot more fun to write about than to rewatch, that's for sure.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Downloading The Devils

Even by the anything-goes standards of the irrepressible Ken Russell, there's nothing quite like The Devils (1971), which shocked audiences in 1971, and shocks us today, both for its "not for the squeamish" content (to quote Leonard Maltin) and when we consider what the studios were up to in 1971. Today, we get so-called "torture porn"; back then, we got a film that doesn't flinch from hysterical depravity, then comes to a sharply moral point, much harder than the so-called "lessons" absorbed ad knee-jerk from Saw I-VI. With name actors, too, in Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, both fearsomely committed to this fire-and-brimstone Aldous Huxley adaptation.

I saw the movie in college, at a raucous midnight screening that ultimately silenced a bunch of jaded kids. Seeing it again has been a challenge, as Warner Bros., which at one point edited the film to play on a double bill with The Exorcist, turned its back on it. I recall a panned-and-scanned tape that was, at best, a feeble representation of its strikingly produced self. There was a UK telecast of a more complete version, never released, that was available through grey-market sources--and it had its own issues, though it was a welcome bastard, complete with a fine documentary. A few years back Russell said that he had prepared a commentary for a hotly requested and long-overdue release. The rest has been silence.

But, to paraphrase Tennessee Williams, "Sometimes there's The Devils so quickly." In late May a gorgeous, anamorphic widescreen print of the film, as seen in its initial US and UK release, turned up--not as a Warner DVD, or as part of the Warner Archive, but on iTunes, where it can be rented or purchased by anyone out there, no region codes or all that nonsense. I've rented films for online viewing before, but this was The Devils, so I paid my $9.95 (several dollars less than a DVD or Archive release) and downloaded the movie.

I was taken aback when iTunes said that that the 1.2GB file would take six hours to download. The job was finished, though, in less than an hour. I'd have paid a lot more if iTunes could add two free hours for me to watch it, but what I scanned through was in fantastic shape. Call me old school: I'd rather have a physical product in my hot little hands, an Archive release as no frills as this one or, preferably, a pressed DVD with the UK doc and Russell's commentary. (This may be the teaser for that.) For now, though, The Devils has possessed my MacBook Pro. What other hidden gems are up on iTunes, I wonder?

UPDATE: iTunes giveth, iTunes taketh away: The Devils has been exorcised from the site. Bound for DVD perhaps?

Friday, June 18, 2010

RIP Ronald Neame

Such a rich 20th century life in the movies, which he was born into and never left. He was there as Alfred Hitchcock and the British film industry entered the sound era, shot, did effects work for, and co-wrote some of David Lean's finest films, for which he received three Oscar nominations, then struck out on his own for a varied directing career. He made the best of the disaster films, 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, then unmade the genre with the disastrous Meteor seven years later. On a more human scale he directed Maggie Smith toward an Oscar in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, helmed the sprightly capers Gambit (1966) and Hopscotch (1980), made two of Alec Guinness' more notable credits, The Horse's Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Gloryy (1960), and gave Judy Garland a best as could be hoped for swan song in 1963's I Could Go on Singing. I have The Chalk Garden (1964) waiting to watch. Now's the time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Popdose: Seven Criterion DVDs

Count 'em, seven, including two box sets, 13 films in all. Whew! Included: Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life and Nicolas Roeg's extraordinary Walkabout, a personal favorite.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Psycho at 50

Norman Bates: You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.

Marion Crane: Sometimes, we deliberately step into those traps.

Norman Bates: I was born into mine. I don't mind it anymore.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tonys time

My Twitter feed (look to the right) shows what I was feeling in the moment, but doesn't tell the whole story. Trying to avoid the chatters, who tend to trend catty, I thought the show made what it could from a fairly dry season; the star power came in handy, and winners Catherine Zeta-Jones and Scarlett Johansson threw off some heat. Alas, the evening's best moment, Marian Seldes' delightful "speechless" reaction to winning her lifetime achievement award, was relegated to the first hour; if you don't have NY1, which telecast it, you didn't see it, nor much of the design winners, which always irritates me. The musical numbers always come off as somewhat canned, particularly when the sound system is faltering, and solo performers like Zeta-Jones are better off performing their songs rather than acting them in a vacuum. (On the other hand, non-nominee Kristin Chenoweth was much sunnier and more relaxed here than onstage in Promises, Promises.) No one has ever solved what to do with the plays, twas ever thus. So, a New York "whatever," not bad, some nice moments (Douglas Hodge's La Cage vamp of a game Matthew Morrison and a Will Smith)--and hopes for a jazzier 09-10 season that gives the show more to work with. The Tony-winning Memphis is pictured.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Summer issue of Cineaste, online and on sale

It's out, and up, now. Some of it anyway, including an excellent editorial and Jonathan Rosenbaum feature that address some of the knottier facets of DVDs, this month's special focus. Online exclusives include an interview with Neil Jordan about his latest film, the seagoing fantasy Ondine (pictured), which has just entered release. All aboard, mates!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

RIP William A. Fraker

Six Oscar nominations for the veteran cinematographer...but not for Bullitt? Rosemary's Baby? Did they somehow cancel each other out in 1968? That's Hollywood, which was also disinclined to acknowledge his staggering work on John Boorman's maligned Exorcist II: The Heretic. But he did get two nominations (one for visual effects) for Steven Spielberg's 1941 (1979), a movie of dense, smoky textures, notoriously hard to replicate on DVD (the one that's out doesn't even try) but absolutely stunning at the theater so long ago. And he directed one of the great autumnal Westerns, 1970's Monte Walsh, with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. Played "The Cellist" and photographed the Seventies cult object Dusty and Sweets McGee. He was also a friend and mentor to many, which more than makes up for Oscar's whims.

I Knew It Was You

A movie fan worth his or her salt can place that title instantly. It's that devastating line that Michael Corleone delivers to his weakling elder brother, Fredo, at a turning point in The Godfather: Part II (1974). And it's what Richard Shepard's beautiful short documentary about actor John Cazale is called, too. To be in the company of this legendary figure (five movies, five Best Picture nominees) and the people who were proud to have known and worked with him during his tragically brief life (gone at age 42, 32 years ago now, from lung cancer) is 40 minutes of undiluted pleasure. HBO is airing the film several more times this month and I urge you to watch it. I did through smiles and tears, particularly when Meryl Streep discussed their relationship...and I loved the other actors (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Rockwell, etc.) trying to pinpoint exactly what made him great and how he inspired them to do better, either directly or through the legacy of his films. (That's him in Sidney Lumet's classic Dog Day Afternoon.) Proof that you're never really dead until no one remembers you, but why no mention of the little black box theater on Upper Broadway that bears his name?