Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Left Behind: 'Grand Prix'

There are a number of great movies that have been 'left behind' in the digital revolution. While some of these movies may actually be available on DVD, many have not received the kind of treatment they deserve. One of the best examples of this is 1966's 'Grand Prix.'

Directed by John Frankenheimer, who at that time was best known for the magnificent but controversial 'The Manchurian Candidate,' the American director wanted to put his love of open-wheel racing on the big screen. A film like this would not fly today, but in the late 1960s, the sport of open-wheel racing was perhaps at its peak in America. Much of this fascination was with the exotic nature of the international series of Formula 1, which raced all around the world and created superstars akin to the NASCAR drivers of today.

Frankenheimer would take his cameras where no one had ever been before, literally on the extremes of the 180 mph spartan racers. Toting a cache of Super Panavision 70mm cameras, Frankenheimer would film from all sides of Formula 1 cars as they sped around hairpin curves. James Garner provided star quality, but the real headliners were the speed machines themselves, as well as their high profile drivers.

Because of the way it was filmed, 'Grand Prix' would be an amazing DVD. The use of Super Panavision cameras mean Frankenheimer's film defines 'widescreen' and his liberal use of split screen techniques puts the viewer right in the middle of the tension-filled races. I can't imagine how amazing this movie would look if it was remastered, or if it was viewed on an appropriately widescreened monitor. At the same time, the sexy sounds of wide open F1 throttles would assault your senses if mastered in Dolby Digital or DTS.

I've read that MGM's explanation to 'Grand Prix' not being on DVD is that there is not enough interest to make it feasible. But 'Grand Prix' has driven under the radar for a decade without much buzz, so it's not fair to fault it for that. If anything, today's increased interest in racing should help spur a new DVD release that, if properly handled, could entice a new generation of racing fans.

From the DVD Panache Library: 'Ed Wood'

One of my recent dips into The DVD Panache Library produced 'Ed Wood,' which I had recently picked up after nearly two years of delays from the studios. Won't you join me in a look at one of the more underappreciated works of the 90s? Please?

Watching 'Ed Wood,' it still amazes me that this movie was even made. Even though it had a great cast and a popular director, it was virtually guaranteed to do poorly at the box office since it was made in black and white about a person few knew anything about. But because of this, 'Ed Wood' will age gracefully thanks to Tim Burton's storytelling ability and one of Johnny Depp's best roles.

'Ed Wood' is of course a biopic of the title character, who gained fame posthumously as the alleged worst director of all time. Burton's lense shows the viewer that although his films lacked proper budgets, and arguably quality, Wood was a tireless worker who went to great lengths to see his visions on the screen.

Being shot in black and white gives 'Ed Wood' an advantage over other period biopics, giving it an air of authenticity and making its characters into near carbon copies of their real-life counterparts (Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi especially). The black and white direction to me acts like another character in the film, showing the old days of Hollywood and what gutter budget directors like Wood could get away with.

Even though Burton's film pays particular attention to his character's vices (Lugosi's morphine addiction, Wood's crossdressing), it never seems like he is trying to tear them down. Rather it creates sympathy in Lugosi's case and gives a window into how eclectic and brave Wood really was.

Burton made the smart decision of focusing his film on a key period in Wood's life, specifically the director's entry into Hollywood and the production behind a few of his most well-known, and reviled, films. In Depp, Burton found an actor more than capable of displaying Wood's unshakable confidence and his giddiness behind (and in front of) the camera. Depp said he based part of his character on Ronald Reagan, and it's easy to see, as Wood seems to roll every avalanche of bad news off his back with another smile.

But 'Ed Wood' is at its best when Burton pokes fun at the title character and the Z-budget movie industry as a whole. The best example of this is during the filming of 'The Atomic Bride' when Wood films two successive scenes of characters essentially just passing through a hallway for no reason ('He really wants to get through that door!') before the studio boss comes to inform Wood that another one of his checks bounced. Or during the octopus scene when Wood responds to a question with 'I've got 25 scenes to film tonight!'

The long-awaited DVD of 'Ed Wood' features an entertaining ensemble commentary which reveals that the decision to film in B&W came well into pre-production. Also included is a semi-entertaining collection of behind the scenes footage as well as an interesting look at the theremin, the unique instrument used to make most of the score.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Lazy Sunday 80s Matinee: Howard the Duck

You remember those days, right? Sundays in the spring or summer well before digital cable, when a kid was forced to flip through the channels and find an oasis of entertainment between the dregs of tennis, church shows and 'Gimme a Break' reruns? For me, there are certain movies from the 80s that instantly zip me back to that time, one of which is 'Howard the Duck.' HBO was notorious in the late-80s (even moreso than it is now) for repeating certain movies at a bewildering pace. They weren't even necessarily good movies, either (the wonderfully bad 'Solar Babies' was a gold member of this club).

So this brings us to 'Howard the Duck,' which is becoming one of those movies that, when shown to one of today's teens, would elicit a 'what the hell?' look not seen since I walked out on 'Waking Life.' Watching it now, it's fun to imagine just what was going through George Lucas' mind with this project when describing it to his semi-friend Steven Spielberg:

Lucas: 'So Steve, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" was pretty good, but my next project is even more daring'
Spielberg: 'More daring than a PG-13 movie where someone's heart gets ripped out and turns to flames before said heartless man is incinerated? Do tell.'
L: 'It's called "Howard the Duck," and it's going to blow audiences away with its hero's attitude and an infusion of rock 'n roll and sci-fi monsters.'
S: 'Sounds like a hit, but didn't you say it has "Duck" in the title?'
L: 'Ya, it's based on a comic book.'
S: 'I've never heard of it, do the kids read it?'
L: 'Highly unlikely, it's not very popular at all.'
S: 'But you're making a movie about it?'
L: 'Oh ya, and get this: the Duck, you know, Howard? He's so crass and in-your-face that he smokes cigars!'
S: 'I don't know Georgie, any stars in it?'
L: Well I've got Maggie McFly from "Back to the Future" and the principal from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off!" You'll love his part, in this one scene, a snake comes out of his mouth to suck the electricity out of a car's cigarette lighter!'

Okay, I better stop here, this could go on way too long. Looking at the poster above, doesn't it make perfect sense that it came out on August 1 in 1986? I mean this is the quintessential late-summer movie. I guessed I've bashed 'Howard' enough, because there were some good parts of this movie that made me watch it numerous times on HBO:

-- Jeffrey Jones: God I love this guy, if I was a director I would use him like Joe Dante uses Dick Miller. He's so great at playing Demented/Crazy Guy #2, and 'Howard' is no exception.

-- Better-than-usual 80s sci-fi effects: This is where Lucas' touch really shows, as the monster effects still hold up pretty well, and the snake coming out of Jones' mouth even looks good.

-- The Duck-isms: Lucas milked the duck element about as much as he could. Oh, look! He's reading Playduck! And he's sad that he doesn't fit in because he's the only duck walking around Los Angeles smoking a cigar!

-- The laser gun finale: This was always my favorite scene, when Howard finds a big laser gun in a closet at the lab (they're always lying around somewhere) and blasts the monsters from whence they came. Of course since this is a Lucas flick, this scene would not be complete without a Tarzan reference (i.e. Ewoks in 'Return of the Jedi,' Wookies in 'Episode III')

--The musical finale: Yes, Howard is onstage with Beverly. Her band managed to compose a song about him amazingly called 'Howard the Duck' and the credits roll. Beautiful.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

My 10 Favorite DVD Commentaries

I remember when I got my first-ever DVD ('Ronin,' way back in 1999), the first thing I wanted to do was listen to John Frankenheimer's commentary on the disc. It was a feature I had read about when the digital format was being developed and it has remained one of the most popular special features on a DVD. Below are 10 of my favorite commentaries:

10. Peter Bagdonavich ('Citizen Kane')
'Kane' has two excellent commentaries, including one from director Peter Bagdonavich. It is never fully explained by Peter how he came to know Orson Welles as well as it seems he did from the anecdotes he gives, but his incite on the director and his movie are excellently candid. Bagdonavich's laid back approach includes some rare criticism of 'Kane,' adding that it's not even his favorite film by Welles.

9. John McTiernan ('Predator')
The tone for director McTiernan's commentary on 'Predator' is set in the opening minutes when he admits, in a voice that can best be described as a hungover Jeff Lebowski: "It's been a LONG time since I've seen this movie!" Although McTiernan seems less-than-enthusiastic about giving a commentary on his film, he gives some great insight, including how he dealt with the Mexican crew on the set and how the infamous gatling gun worked (it was hooked up to numerous batteries and could be barely be lifted).

8. Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach ('The Life Aquatic')
Like his movies, Wes Anderson's commentary track on 'Aquatic' is far from ordinary. He and co-writer Noah Baumbach recorded the commentary at the very restaurant where the two conceived of the film. Throughout the track, you can hear the hustle and bustle of the eatery in the background which adds to the how simple Anderson and Baumbach make the filmmaking process sound.

7. John Carpenter and Kurt Russel ('Big Trouble in Little China')
Just like Carpenter always comes off as an everyman director, Russel just seems like he can be your neighbor. The result is a very genuine conversation/commentary between the two friends with Carpenter explaining his trademark framing techniques and Russel pointing out how fun it was to do the various stunts. Carpenter also drops this bomb of geek info on you: 'Big Trouble' was originally intended as a straight-up Western, now how cool would that have been?

6. Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhall ('Donnie Darko')
Since Kelly was a 26-year-old first-time director with 'DD,' he brings a very honest and youthful tone to the commentary, with Gyllenhall acting like his junior high buddy who busts his chops at every opportunity. Kelly reveals where the grotesquely creative visions for 'DD' came from and little tidbits of filmmaking goodness here and there (like the ghastly sum that The Pet Shop Boys wanted for the right to include 'West End Girls' as the dance team's song)

5. Tim Burton and Paul Reubens ('PeeWee's Big Adventure')
What a coup it was for PeeWee fans when Reubens signed up for this commentary. Burton and Reubens have a lively look back at the production of 'PeeWee,' which the latter was involved in maybe more than you thought. Reubens reveals that the bicycle plot came was inspired by Warner Bros. giving the comedian a nifty bike to ride around their studios during pre-production. Also, most of the odd toys in PeeWee's bedroom actually belonged to Reubens.

4. Michael Mann ('Heat')
The main reason I double dipped on 'Heat' was to hear Mann's take on his masterpiece. Not only does Mann talk about working on the set with Pacino and De Niro, but also how much his years of reasearch into criminal behavior added to the authentic feel of the film. Mann's commentary adds to the belief of how hard it is these days to make a sweeping crime epic like 'Heat,' they don't come around too often.

3. Roger Ebert ('Dark City')
I love it when film critics add commentaries, especially when it's someone like Ebert talking about one of my favorite movies. Ebert boldly proclaimed 'Dark City' as one of the best movies of the year and is able to add a never-dull track to its disc. Ebert gushes on and on about the strange nuances of the original plot as well as the genius natural lighting and authentic sci-fi-noir look of the movie. Ebert points out something that I never noticed: There is not a single cuss word in the entire movie.

2. Hunter S. and Anita Thompson ('Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas')
Criterion's inclusion of this new commentary track is perhaps the firm's best special feature to date. After Thompson's death, this commentary serves as a nearly living time capsule for fans of what kind of person Thompson was. Yes, he really was that crazy (a few times he lets out piercing wails for no reason), and yes he really was that smart (poignant analysis of the Book of Genesis as one of the greatest examples of writing). This is far from your normal commentary, as Thompson tries to call Johnny Depp and Benicio del Torro during the recording session (neither were home) and also takes questions from a University of New Orleans professor on the lasting legacy of the movie.

1. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer ('This is Spinal Tap')
Wow! For the true 'Tap' fan, this commentary is like a sequel to the funniest movie ever made. Speaking in character, the three musicians take us through their last 20 years of their career and give us their uncensored takes on the co-stars of the film, such has how Marty DeBergi lied to them and how most of the people in the film are dead now (at least they think so).

Reason No. 292 Why 'Citizen Kane' is King
Mrs. Kane's introduction to the "Singer"

In between Kane's grandiose storytelling, RKO Radio-quality humor and groundbreaking visuals is a scene depicting a genuine emotional rollercoaster courtesy of Boss Gettys' Darwinian politics and Kane's only weakness: his greed.

As Kane leaves the opera house following his near-victory speech in front of a two story poster of himself he sees Emily putting Junior in a car. As he approaches, he waves goodbye to his son and looks into his wife's eyes, and realizes that his lifelong political dream was about to come crashing down.

Orson Welles' artistic genius is on display for these brief moments, when his characters say little, but their faces speak paragraphs. We see in Emily a woman who has been playing the role of Kane's wife for years but is ready for it to end at the house of Susan Alexander. Kane's morose expression gives us a glimpse of a man who perhaps minutes before experienced the greatest euphoria of his life, only to see his own deeds bring him down. Out of pride, he goes with Emily to Susan's house, but he knows that he has lost.

At Susan's house, as Kane's mistress is exposed to Emily with vicious honesty, the show is nearly stolen by Gettys, who displays the utmost confidence in the cold-hearted political tactic being used against his opponent Kane, who made him out to be the city's greatest criminal during the campaign.

As the scene comes to a close and Kane refuses to budge on his campaign, yelling to Gettys that he will send him to Sing Sing, Welles makes an interesting directorial decision. It's no accident the attention Welles' lens pays to Gettys and Emily at the finale of the scene. Gettys politely offers Emily a ride home, showing no ill-will of the act of his own that just ruined Kane's marriage and election.

I believe Welles uses this brief dialogue to show that acts like Gettys are commonplace in politics and are to be expected, especially from a veteran like Gettys. Unlike Kane, Gettys shows no emotion during the scene, because to him a tactic such as exposing his opponent as an adulterer is just another day at the office.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

This just in

On Thursdays I'm going to try and cover all the DVD news that was, well, news to me.

Big, big Criterion news, as Kurosawa's Ran will finally get due treatment. I've never gotten to see Ran in its entirety, but from what I remember, this will look stunning on DVD. Kurosawa spares no expense in his lavish big battle set pieces in this retelling of King Lear.


In case you haven't heard, a Collector's Edition of The Big Lebowski will be coming out on Oct. 18. Now call me crazy but I really like the new cover work. They could have easily gone with one of the alternate posters (namely the one with Jeff showing Maud the proper bowling technique), but this is entirely new and will rightly confuse the uninitiated. It will also be available as a giftset, complete with an official bowling shammy, coasters, photos and cards. Not sure if the latter is worth a $20 premium.


In November, Robert Rodriguez' Mexico Trilogy will be released at the hey-why-not price of $29.99. Included will be El Mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Rodriguez is clearly a guy who understands what his fans want from DVDs (much like Sam Raimi and Wes Anderson) and is doing everything he can to feed our never-ending geeky appetite.


My favorite news of the week, maybe the month, is that Airplane! will finally get the digital treatment it has long deserved. To be titled Airplane!: Don't Call Me Shirley Edition, DVD Journal reports that it will have 5.1 and what promises to be a riotous Zucker Bros. commentary.


Finally, this is old news but I finally got to see a picture of the new Sex and the City: The Complete Series boxed set. I wasn't a big fan of the series, but this is certainly a ground-breaking release for television DVDs. I don't know of any other instance where a series this big (what was it, five seasons?) was released in its entirety. It certainly looks nice, but with an MSRP of $300 ($299 at Amazon) would anyone be willing to double dip?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Wednesday's Question: Jack Lemmon or Rosalind Russell
It's not often that opposite sexes get a chance at the same role, but that's the case with the character Hildy Johnson, in the play "The Front Page," which was put on the big screen in 1940 as "His Girl Friday" and in 1974 as simply "The Front Page." The story centers around a star reporter (Hildy) leaving the newspaper life for good to take up marriage. But the day Hildy's train is leaving also happens to be the date of a major execution, and his editor Walter Burns will do everything he can to get one last story out of him.

For the 1940 version, legendary director Howard Hawks wanted to add a battle of the sexes/old flame touch to the hilarious tale, so he changed the Hildy character to a woman. This worked well, with Hildy acting as fiery editor Burns' (Carey Grant) ex-wife. Not only is Burns trying to pry Hildy away from her new beau to serve his newspaper, but also because he hates seeing her with anyone less than him.

In 1974, equally-legendary director Billy Wilder did a straight adaptation of "The Front Page," but with the advantage of having Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as his two top players. Matthau's grating, dry wit was perfect for the Burns role, and Lemmon's honest and genuine likability was key for playing Hildy.

So what way would I have it? Having Hildy as a woman certainly worked with Grant alongside, as he was always at his best when shining his narrow smile at a female co-star, and it added a comedic touch that may have been lacking with another man. But Lemmon is obviously a more gifted comedic actor than Russell, and that is never more clear than near the end in the 1974 version when Hildy insinuates what exactly he and Molly Malloy (Carol Burnett) were doing behind the locked doors of the pressroom. The scene is a riot and in Russell's version, a joke is never attempted.

In this case, I would lean toward the Lemmon/Matthau combination simply because their comedic chemistry was that much better than Grant/Russell. But when comparing the movies, I would always choose "His Girl Friday," simply because its stripped-down production makes it seem more like the play it was intended to be, whereas Wilder's version is so over-the-top in its slapstick that it almost takes away from the movie.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Simpsons: The Complete Sixth Season

Am I the only one who secretly hoped that the packaging for Season Six would not suck? Well I did, and those feelings evaporated when I picked it up off the shelf. All my fears were realized: It is made of cheap, Burger King-quality plastic, there is no spine information (so when you put it on your shelf next to all your other neatly packaged Simpson seasons, all you see is a big block of Burger King plastic), and because it is hinged at the bottom, you cannot even stand it up for display purposes.

But as you may have heard, Fox is letting consumers send away for a regular package for this season. This both excited and confused me. Excited because I will get to have another elegant-looking Simpsons season next to my five others (oooh, I wonder what color it will be? God I'm an idiot) and confused because it really doesn't make sense for Fox to do this. How will they benefit from making thousands of alternate packages and sending them to people for merely the price of shipping (thankfully only $2.95)? And will this option be available for the next seasons?

But of course this season set is about more than packaging. Season six, along with seasons 4 and 5 are pure television comedic gold. The sixth season represents the summit of Simpsons creativity, with no inkling of the series' eventual slow ride into mediocrity, you get the first inkling of that in the seventh season. And once again The Simpsons is riding their own trend of a new creative style of menus with each successive season. Season Five brought us a Simpsons location with characters from that disc's episodes walking in and out, and Season Six gives us a suspects lineup (is that what they're called?) composed of characters from each respective episode (i.e. for "Sideshow Bob Roberts," Sideshow Bob is dressed in an American flag). This is an obvious nod to the season's finale, "Who Shot Mr. Burns?"

I haven't had a chance to listen to any commentaries yet, but I'm sure they will be just as entertaining as the previous seasons. This is a great tribute to the Simpson DVD creators and collaborators, that they are able to consistently supply engaging commentaries even after five seasons worth of episodes.

Well, if you would excuse me, I have to watch "Lemon of Troy," my favorite Simpsons episode ever. I'll have more on this fantastic DVD set later.