Saturday, September 29, 2007

Evil Dead RV

What ever happened to the good old days when it seemed every time you turned around there was a guy wearing a goat's head sacrificing a nude virgin? Well maybe it never got that bad (in most areas), but it's comforting to know that there was a time when the threat of Satanic cults was a great distress to this nation. Case in point the Satanic cult craze in Hollywood and television through the 70s and early 80s. Rosemary's Baby probably jump started the film industry's fascination, and The Exorcist did nothing to slow it down.

So the Satanic cult/Satan genre had a few good movies, but we also got a bunch of low-grade/high-fun crazy crap such as Necromancy (also known as A Life for a Life, Rosemary's Disciples, The Toy Factory and The Witching), starring a brow-furrowed Orson Welles as the devilish owner of a bad toy factory (never seen) and the leader of a Satanic cult (very much seen). But as far as Satanic cults go, it doesn't get much more fun than 1975's Race With the Devil.

Starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates (strangely looking much older and fatter than he did in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, made only a year earlier), Race With the Devil combines the familiar Satanic cult paranoia of Rosemary's Baby with the sensibilities of a Winnebago road trip. What starts off as a pleasant Texas to Colorado ski vacation via a new RV turns bad when Roger (Fonda) and Frank (Oates) find a secluded camping area for the men and their girlfriends, and accidentally spy an apparent Satanic sacrifice across the river. Somehow the men are spotted, and eventually high-tail their asses out of there, but not before a suspenseful river crossing (this is before people knew RVs were not off-road vehicles) and fighting off a few stowaway cult members.

Of course, the local law is little to no help (despite the usually God-fearing R.G. Armstrong playing the sheriff), but our foursome is able to steal a book on Satanism from the library. So they're in the clear, right? Unfortunately, this is not your everyday Satanic cult. The brand of cult in Race With the Devil is the kind that will fill your RV with snakes, the kind that will stare at you while you're in a swimming pool, and the kind that will take you out to dinner at a country western bar with one hand and sacrifice your little dog with the other.

Our gang soon finds out what most of us had already suspected: the entire state of Texas is one giant Satanic cult. This leads to a Winnebago death chase that may have inspired some of the delicious madness that ends The Road Warrior. There are some absolutely smashing stunts to be had in the climactic chase scene, and if you're hoping for the gang to outrun the Satanists, well -- you just don't know how Texas cults work, do ya? They always get their man.

Race With the Devil is all kinds of fun, and it's helped by the fact that the nameless Satanic cult is played as an outright MacGuffin. We never learn what their intentions are, what they plan to do with our gang, or even who it was they were sacrificing that one night. And who cares? As long as it results in a cross country chase with a Winnebago, I'm satisfied.

Note: While googling Race With the Devil, I ran into this Black Oak Arkansas album of the same name. Niiiiiice.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wes Anderson: It's in the Details (Part II)

As I said in Part I, what I love most about Wes Anderson's movies is his attentiveness to the details. Often they don't have anything to do with the plot, or you only catch them the second time through, but they're what make Anderson's movies his. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, these details are less explicit than they were in The Royal Tenenbaums (such as a richly detailed quick flashback of Ethelline's former suitors or the infamous paintings in Eli's house). The details here are less bombastic and usually low-key, fitting in with the overall mood and story of the film.

  1. Steve Zissou's office, like that of Raleigh St. Claire in The Royal Tenenbaums, features an outrageous rotary telephone.
  2. Anne-Marie is topless when she's introduced, silently inferring that she's foreign, but she has an American accent in her later scenes.
  3. All the crew members of the Belafonte have multiple titles, except Pele, who is merely the "safety expert."
  4. Zissou's interns are from the University of North Alaska.
  5. The packed theater in the beginning is made up of French and English speakers, as half the audience starts laughing at Zissou's reply before the translator starts talking.
  6. The over-attentive assistant at the theater brings Zissou and the host an ornate crystal pitcher of water without prompt.
  7. Zissou and Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) are both wearing a number of apparently nautical decorations on their suits at the gala, but Hennessey has more, including some sort of medal in place of a tie.
  8. Zissou's entire crew, and also Hennessey, wear a small green pin on their lapel.
  9. At the after party on the Belafonte, Zissou gives Eleanor some her game of solitaire just before the power goes out.
  10. The bar tender at the after party is one of Zissou's interns, wearing a shirt with "INTERN" boldly printed on it.
  11. The Air Kentucky uniform that Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) wears includes a string tie in the style of Col. Sanders.
  12. The kitchen in the Belafonte includes many racks of wine.
  13. Among the books in The Steve Zissou Companion Series: Tragedy of the Red Octopus, Arctic Night Lights and Trawlers, Junks and Dinghies (Zissou later reads the latter, trying to identify the pirates' ship).
  14. The painting of Hennessey at the Explorers' Club features him sitting on a couch on the deck of a boat, like he does later in the movie.
  15. After Zissou berates the Explorers' Club waiter for trying to give wine to Ned -- who "doesn't know anything about wine" -- he throws it down like a shot.
  16. One of the artifacts at the Explorers' Club is an old space suit from a foreign country.
  17. After landing on his island with Plimpton, Zissou takes a bottle of liquor and a shot glass out of his suit jacket.
  18. Continuing the theme of pay phones from earlier Anderson movies, the Belafonte contains a strange, foreign edition with many slots for coins. Unlike the pay phones in The Royal Tenenbaums, it is not rotary.
  19. Plimpton's official correspondence stationary describes him as "Kingsley (Ned) Zissou."
  20. Co-writer Noah Baumbach plays Oseary Drakoulias' assistant in a brief scene in his office.
  21. Zissou uses the term "teamsmanship."
  22. The studio inside the Belafonte contains a pristine electric guitar, similar to a Fender Jaguar model.
  23. Among the stunts listed on the bulletin board are: Skydiving into the Volcano (crossed out by Eleanor), bottle shooting, Zodiac speed jump over rocks and cliff jumping.
  24. Klaus makes himself a cappuccino during the raid on Hennessey's compound.
  25. Hennessey has a framed picture of Lord Mandrake on his boat, just as Zissou does.
  26. A rum cannonball (which Zissou remembers fondly from the Hotel Citroen) contains rum, gin, orange juice, strawberry soda, lemon-lime soda and pineapple juice.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where no season set has gone before

I knew I was forgetting something in my last post when I talked about how busy this Christmas season would be for big DVD releases, and here it is:

If you haven't heard, to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Trek, all of the original episodes have been mastered in HD, gotten enhanced special effects and are now being syndicated across the country (here's a list of air dates on local affiliates). The results have been outstanding (see old vs. new) while only occasionally inching into George Lucas touch-up territory. While the episodes are available for broadcast in HD, most areas have them on analog stations (including mine). And unless you have an XBox 360, where they are available for download in HD, you'll never be able to see William Shatner's nipples through his enterprise uniform. Which brings us to the new DVD set.

The moment I heard about the new episode treatment, I couldn't help but feel sorry for all those Star Trek fans who had plunked down $90 for the three season sets released a couple of years ago. Knowing companies are still in the business of making money, they would eventually get around to releasing these hot-rodded seasons on DVD, at an even more astronomical price. But I would have never predicted that the new seasons would arrive in an HD-DVD/DVD combo format! This news is exciting and disappointing at the same time. Exciting because you'll have the episodes in HD even if you haven't decided to upgrade your hardware yet, and disappointing because this has increased the price even more ($200 MSRP).

Still, this is a big milestone for television on DVD and a huge piece of news for the HD-DVD fight. The Star Trek seasons will be the first showcase of what the next-gen formats can do for television, specifically older television. Like many series, Star Trek was filmed on 35mm, which means there is a ton of resolution built into the master prints of it -- a picture quality no television in the 1970s, much less an ordinary DVD can replicate. So this isn't just bumping up to 720p on your upconversion player, these sets will present the genuine article with radically improved picture quality. The DVDs will also have new special features that take advantage of the new format, including the ability to completely navigate through the enterprise with your remote (watch a handy video of the feature here).

In fact, one of the reasons new special effects had to be added was that they didn't hold up in HD. With amazing clarity, the decades-old effects wouldn't be able to blend in like they could on our old Zenith set. Still, there's the price -- and from reading the comments on the Amazon page it looks like that will be a huge stumbling block even for huge Trek fans. I see it as just another reason why the consumer is winning in a big way with the HD-DVD vs. BluRay battle.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Start saving up for Oct. 23!

October 23 is shaping up to be one of the deepest DVD release dates in some time. There's quite a few to cover, so let's start right at the top with the most anticipated release:

Warner Director's Series: Stanley Kubrick

A long time coming, Kubrick fans will finally get souped-up widescreen transfers of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. The set also includes a disc containing the documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures." This will be the third Kubrick box set from Warner Bros., but by far the best -- and coming in at only $55! As has been long discussed, Kubrick specified that his movies only be released in full screen and mono sound for home video, allegedly because he didn't like how letterbox effects looked. This was fairly easy to do, as almost all of his movies were shot in full frame and then cropped for theatrical distribution. Kubrick died before widescreen televisions became popular, and now we will finally have all of his movies available in their theatrical aspect ratio.

This will also be the first time American audiences will see the uncut version of Eyes Wide Shut, without the digitally-added shadowy figures in the orgy scene. All of the releases will have extra material (a first for each movie included), including commentary tracks. In addition to the box set, each included film will be available in new standalone two-disc editions, and new versions of Lolita and Barry Lyndon will go on sale that date as well (no information as of yet for those last two). Other Kubrick classics, such as Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus, are not available to Warner Bros., but have received quality DVD releases in the past. For a good explanation on Kubrick's full frame compositions and what to expect with the new widescreen cropping, check out this very informative DVD Talk thread.

The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 2

Now that Tim Lucas' long-awaited tome on the director has been released, Bava fans have more reason to celebrate with another affordable collection of his films. $35 gets you 8 Bava movies, including Bay of Blood, Lisa and the Devil and 5 Dolls for the August Moon. Volume 1 of the Bava collection contains six of the director's works, and was available on Amazon this summer for $20. My experience with Bava is admittedly meager, but I've been itching to put an end to that, and this new set may be just the cure.

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, Volume 1

I don't remember this series as fondly as others, but fans have been clamoring for a DVD release of it for a long time. From my perspective, only the real hard core fans will pony up $90 for this, as it only contains seven episodes (plus 38 companion documentaries) across 12 discs. The second and third volumes are expected in December and Spring 2008. Paramount was smart to give this similar packaging to the Indiana Jones Trilogy box.

The Criterion Collection: Days of Heaven, Breathless and Under the Volcano

A very solid month's offerings from Criterion. For many, Days of Heaven is the highlight as Malick films typically have very poor representation on DVD (possibly due to the director). I'm looking forward to Under the Volcano, as I had never heard of it until Criterion's announcement, and it sounds very good.

Hellraiser: 20th Anniversary Edition

Hopefully Anchor Bay will give this the same first class treatment it gave Phantasm earlier this year. I believe this will be the first time Hellraiser will be available in anamorphic widescreen.

Cutting Class (Unrated Version)

Yes, that's right Moviezzz! For the first time on DVD comes the horror movie Brad Pitt would like us to forget -- and that's not going to happen with the young actor dominating the cover art. A strangely entertaining slasher flick that seemed to inspire the most infamous shot in Eli Roth's Thanksgiving (see Moviezzz link for more explanation), Cutting Class has been rarely seen, some say due to Pitt's efforts to keep it out of the public eye (I've only seen an edited version on late-night cable). No word on extras, or what the new cut is like.

Battleship Potemkin (The Ultimate Edition)

The historic treasure gets a serious upgrade, featuring newly-translated intertitles as well as the original Russian intertitles. The highlight of this two-disc set looks to be a newly-recorded score, care of the Deutsches Filmorchestra, presented in 5.1 sound.


What a week! And just a week later, we'll have the Twin Peaks: Gold Box. It's also going to be quite a Christmas season, with the Blade Runner extravaganza coming out in December.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Wes Anderson: It's in the Details (Part I)

Wes Anderson's career technically started with the marvelous Bottle Rocket, but the career he is currently living out began with Rushmore. It was with Rushmore that Anderson introduced a comedic style that not only featured traditional jokes, but a variety of "static" jokes disguised as background objects, names and seemingly trivial details. The montage of Max Fischer's heavy involvement in scholastic clubs was a perfect introduction to this style, as it took up little screen time but obviously contained a wealth of comedy that would be revealed further on repeat viewings. This style of Anderson's would be applied in his two subsequent films, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Even though his upcoming The Darjeeling Ltd. looks to be less zany than those last two (obligatory: "why does it have to be zany?"), I'm infinitely thrilled to see it if only for seeing what details he serves up this time.

To me, this kind of comedy reminds me of the best moments of The Simpsons, where static jokes are treated like royalty by writers. But Anderson has quietly made this technique his own, and for me it doesn't get any better than in The Royal Tenenbaums. Here, I have listed (in all the not-so-obvious details, names and background objects I have noticed after many viewings. I intend to do this for the other two Anderson movies I mentioned as well.

  1. Pagoda serves Royal Tenenbaum a martini on a silver tray, after he informed his children of their parents' divorce.
  2. The cover of Etheline Tenenbaum's A Family of Geniuses seems to be a photograph taken at the book's very release junket, possibly indicating that we are seeing a later edition of the book.
  3. The Tenenbaum family flag, an elongated pink triangle with a simple "T" crest at its base, flies on a spire at the family's Archer Avenue house as well as their summer home on Eagle's Island. This same shade of pink is frequently worn by Royal and Pagoda during the movie.
  4. In a flashback to Royal addressing Margot as his adopted daughter, they are at a party and flanked by high-ranking military members apparently from Russia, Western Europe and the Middle East, as well as an old man in an outrageous houndstooth suit.
  5. At young Eli Cash's house, in the background there is a key holder bearing Sharpie inscriptions of "Eli's Keys" and "Aunt's Keys" with respective arrows. Young Eli is later seen wearing a key on a necklace.
  6. Royal wears the same outfit in all the childhood scenes: a tan coat with sunglasses and a lit cigarette.
  7. As he is getting dressed for a press event for his new book, Old Custer, Eli is assisted by three men -- one of which holds up a platter of finger sandwiches. Eli takes one bite.
  8. When we are introduced to Henry Sherman, he is apparently inside an apartment building he owns. Behind him are plaques with reminders of when garbage is picked up and other items. Below the text is "H. Sherman. Landlord."
  9. After Royal is informed that he must leave The Lindburgh Palace Hotel, we see his masseuse packing his bags while he looks out the window and smokes.
  10. The name of the reggae band Margot got involved with is Desmond Winston Manchester XI (the name of the album is illegible on my TV, anyone?)
  11. The names of Margot's plays we see on posters in her room include and Nakedness Tonight and Erotic Transference.
  12. Raleigh St. Claire's office is filled with various outdated technology, including a bizarre multiline rotary phone and random vacuum tube switchboards.
  13. The three former suitors of Etheline are: Neville Smythe (a British Arctic explorer), Yasuo Oshima (an Asian architect) and Franklin Benedict (a John Huston-like director with an eye patch, cigarette and a set filled with an Indiana Jones lookalike, a pair of amphibious people, a space man and an obscured production chair, of which we can see the word "Galaxion").
  14. While meeting with Pagoda, Royal calls Henry a "two-bit chartered accountant."
  15. The Tenenbaum's neighborhood varies radically with each side of the house: one side is in an upscale area next door to the Thai embassy, another is in a downtrodden area and a third side is on a wooded street with a bus stop.
  16. Margot's closet still contains her leopard costume used in the play performed on her birthday.
  17. Eli is seen smoking a peace pipe.
  18. Eli's apartment features the spectacular "Aggressively Mediocre/Mentally Challenged/Fantasy Island (circle one)" paintings by Miguel Calderon.
  19. Richie is seen reading Three Plays by Margot Tenenbaum. The book can't be any longer than 150 pages, and though the names of the plays listed on the cover are illegible, none of them look to be the previously mentioned titles.
  20. Henry Sherman's desk has an urn on it, presumably containing the remains of his wife who died of stomach cancer.
  21. In addition to the previously mentioned former suitors, Henry and Etheline recall Gen. Doug Cartwright in conversation.
  22. Rotary payphones are frequently featured in shots, often in strange locations such as near the water of a public swimming pool and on the roof of a rec center.
  23. A gravestone observed by Royal and Richie reads "drowned in the Caspian Sea."
  24. During the broadcast of Richie's infamous tennis meltdown, the play-by-play man is voiced by Wes Anderson. His color analyst is named Tex Hayworth.
  25. Eli's apartment has a large table saw and a mounted bull's head with a lasso around the horns.
  26. Richie is often seen drinking a Bloody Mary.
  27. The magazine sent from Eli to Etheline has a note that reads "Dear Mrs. Tenenbaum, just in case you missed it. --Eli."
  28. Eli's cover story is titled "Where the Wild Things Are" and has a deck that reads "New work reopens genre. Adam Scher talks with the James Joyce of the West."
  29. Eli's previous novel was titled Wildcat.
  30. Royal tells a cabbie to take him to the "375th St. Y" and their destination bears that literal title.
  31. The novel The Royal Tenenbaums that the movie supposedly follows is very poorly written. When chapter headings introduce scenes, they begin with lines like "Royal is wearing his wool hat" or "they pull up in front of a building that looks like a huge castle."
  32. When Chas is chasing Eli through the house during the wedding, Pagoda stops Eli with some sort of food and says "hey man, try this it's very tasty." Eli eats it.
  33. Margot's play we see near the end, Levinsons in the Trees, appears to be based on the miniature set we see her playing with in the beginning.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Mind and the Metallurgy

It was 20 years ago this summer that RoboCop was released, and the occasion is celebrated by finally delivering a proper DVD of it to consumers (more on that later). I first saw RoboCop the following summer, when my mom amazingly rented it for me and my friends to watch during my seventh birthday party. It was quite a coup, since we had all spent most of the year imagining what the movie could have been like -- and wondering how many years it would be before our parents would let us see it. I think the title fooled my mom -- it sounds innocent enough -- and I'll never forget the look on my friend Ben Maddox's face when I told him what movie we would be watching that evening (he gripped my shoulders and asked me to repeat, like he had just been told his parents had been eaten by wolves). Somehow we made it through the whole movie without my parents really catching on to what we were watching. Our minds were appropriately blown, and Paul Verhoeven's trademark shock value was a frequent topic of conversation that summer.

Many might shake their fist at DVD Savant when he says in his review that RoboCop is "both the best and the most important Science Fiction film of the 1980s." It doesn't appeal to everyone, but the movie is supremely important in the realm of Sci-Fi -- using the genre as a means to explore issues in our culture to a depth that a more traditional movie could not achieve. It's also important in how RoboCop represents the decade, using landmark "analog" effects to create a world not post-apocalyptic, but one that has clearly reached its peak and is slowly crumbling.

The movie opens with a futuristic Detroit where criminals no longer fear the police, and local badge is nearing strike after a recent massacre of their own. Compounding their fears is the decision of the city to turn over police operations to a private company, OCP -- with deep pockets and radical ideas of how to eliminate crime. The OCP way is not prevention, but annihilation with the frightening E.D. 209 concept -- a monstrous, armored robot that can mow down rows of criminals without thinking twice. But E.D. 209 famously malfunctions in the boardroom, emptying a few drums of bullets into a lacky suit, shifting the company's focus to another project, the RoboCop. Needing only a "volunteer," OCP finds one in Officer Alex Murphy, who in his first day after transferring to the dangerous downtown precinct is viciously executed by a gang of criminals.

We learn almost nothing about Murphy prior to his death, only that he has a family. In one of the movie's greatest sequences, we see the mechanical transformation of Murphy through his eyes, gradually gaining consciousness as his new identity is forged. This climaxes with an epic reveal, as the ordinary police officers in the precinct hear the thunderous footsteps of their new partner, then come face to face with the eye-less machine. Beyond saying that Murphy's memory was erased as part of the RoboCop program, we're given scant details as to how human he still is -- whether his brain is still somewhat intact, or whether his face was simply transplanted onto steel. However many human elements remain, Robo slowly starts to realize there is more to him than circuits, starting with memories of a home and a family who have since moved on after his death.

RoboCop's creators hail the project as something that will "eliminate crime" in Detroit within a decade, but Verhoeven explicitly shows that the only upgrade Robo offers over regular cops is his efficiency at killing. OCP believes that with enough RoboCops or E.D. 209's, the populace will be too afraid to commit crimes, a strategy that will produce more contracts with other cities. But Verhoeven also shows the business side of crime, with crooks bemoaning their notch on the ladder ("we steal this money but we never get to spend any of it!"), and drug kingpins running their rackets like blue collar business owners.

RoboCop would not have worked without the success of its titular character, and watching the new documentaries on the DVD, it's clear a lot of credit has to go to actor Peter Weller. Working for eight months with a mime expert from Juliard, Weller developed the mechanical body movements that convinced audiences they were seeing a well-polished machine. It's Weller's movements that help keep RoboCop a serious film, with his character never veering into Tin Man territory (the sequels had that area covered). Other aspects of the production design keep it another plane of Sci-Fi as well, starting with the still-amazing look of E.D. 209. Bearing no human aspects, the machine is still full of life and terror thanks to some of the best-applied stop-motion animation ever seen and a look of menace that separated it from other giant screen robots (interviews with the designers confirmed my suspicions that its "face" was inspired by a killer whale).

While other effects-heavy films of decades ago look dated, the concept of Future Detroit still succeeds. It is a future with modest technological gains, but a multitude of new problems. The scant remaining aspects of the past are soon to be paved over for a literally new city where the failings of municipal government will be replaced by privatization. Today, Murphy's loss of identity within his cyberclothes is an easy allusion to the bevy of techno-accessories that regularly weigh us down.

The DVD: After so many incomplete editions, it was refreshing to know a definitive RoboCop DVD was in the pipeline, and here it is. The most elusive extra has always been the uncut version of the film, which was contained in the early (and long out of print) Criterion edition. A later release by MGM contained a handful of documentaries, but you had to spring for the Trilogy box set to see the full cut (with the potential for that awkward explanation to your house guest of why you own RoboCop 3). Generously, both cuts are included in this edition, with each getting a cleaned up transfer and a DTS sound mix. So how is the unrated cut? After waiting years to see it, I have to admit that there's really not much difference. The main thing you'll notice is much more blood and bullets with the E.D. 209 boardroom scene, but other than that nothing really jumped out at me.

One of many new MGM releases to be housed in attractive "steelbook" packaging, RoboCop: 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition puts each version of the movie on its own disc. The first disc also contains the holdover extras from the last release (including Verhoeven's commentary), while the second disc has all new extra material. The new documentaries are quite good, with "Villains of Detroit" looking at the baddies with actors Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith and Ray Wise. Smith points out how his character (Clarence Boddicker) was crafted to be atypical, wearing glasses and a thin frame -- with his smarts being his most sinister weapon. "Special Effects: Then and Now" is the highpoint of the disc, with the film's creative talents providing informative insights into their processes and just how it was done. Much of this is spent on the creation of E.D. 209, including the exhaustive process of making the full-scale replica. A nice touch on this documentary is talking with the artists about today's special effects industry, particularly since their talents (matte painting, stop-motion animation) are pretty much extinct. The last documentary is "RoboCop: Creating a Legend," a nice look at everything RoboCop, such as his suit, the actor in it and even the gun (amazingly, they used an actual Beretta model which really did shoot three-round bursts).