Welcome back to Daily Grindhouse’s weekly list of what’s new and interesting in the world of Blu-Ray and DVD releases. You may notice from the stale headline up above that this column is astonishingly late. Let’s look at it a different way, though: Since you haven’t been getting this column in a timely fashion, the bright side is that you’ll have three columns over the next two days. Look for my rundown of the June 3rd releases on DG very soon, and the June 10th column will actually be on time, believe it or not. But first, here’s what came out back in the last days of May…
** PICK OF THE WEEK! **
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)
Wes Anderson is one of the few contemporary filmmakers whose every film is rewarded with the Criterion Collection treatment. To film enthusiasts like myself, a Criterion release is more of an honor than an Academy Award — every package Criterion puts out is lovingly designed, optimally presented, and usually accompanied by a wealth of archival material. It’s easy to see why Anderson’s filmography appeals to the folks at Criterion; there may be no young director more enamored of the various waves of international cinema, the many styles and movements that have resonated over the years, and what Anderson does is vivify those influences for a younger audience who may never have heard the names Hal Ashby, Frank Borzage, François Truffaut, Ernst Lubitsch, Max Ophuls, or Satyajit Ray. (To name only a few at random.) Surely there must be connoisseurs who would argue with Criterion ranking every Anderson film on equal footing — every time a new Wes Anderson movie comes out, you can expect multiple lists grading each of his earlier efforts, and most often, two are closer to the bottom: THE DARJEELING LIMITED, which isn’t on the agenda today, and THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, which for several reasons is possibly my favorite of any of them.
Because Anderson changes up the setting with every film — suburban Texas, Harlem, India, New England, eastern Europe — it’s natural that some milieus are more appealing to the individual viewer. Personally I share the affinity Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach clearly have for stories about the oceans in general, and the nature films of Jacques Cousteau in specific. In THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, Anderson has Bill Murray playing the Cousteau-styled adventurer, and at this point, if I’ve done anything on the internet, it’s to leave a long trail concerning my appreciation for Bill Murray. Bill Murray has played in every Anderson feature since 1998’s RUSHMORE, but this is the one Anderson film that places him front and center. It’s also the first Anderson film with beloved oddballs Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum, appealingly natural fits for the Anderson aesthetic. It’s pleasing to watch Anderson build a stable of repertory players, while always finding unconventional roles for familiar stars.
Outside of possibly BOTTLE ROCKET, there is no Wes Anderson film that is intended to take place in the world as we know it. Verisimilitude is not his concern. Anderson’s films take place in a realm adjacent to ours, a heightened storybook reality in which real-world vernacular and ugliness often intrudes conspicuously. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU has been the most dramatic illustration of that frisson until this year’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Everything is proceeding along sweetly, politely, and quirkily, until the violence barges in. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU is probably the most violent movie Anderson has made, and if you’re selling a Bill Murray action vehicle, I’m buying.
Likewise, Anderson’s films have a history of using miniatures and animation — I mean beyond the all-stop-motion THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX — and in THE LIFE AQUATIC it is most meaningfully integral. The fabled Jaguar Shark which Zissou is on an Ahab-like quest to find is more discussed than seen until the movie’s poignant climax. Like all of the movie’s creatures — all of which were invented by Anderson and Baumbach in a beautiful touch — the animation of the Jaguar Shark was supervised by Henry Selick (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH), and it has an otherworldly impact and quite frankly a spookiness that reminds me in a weird way of the Sandworms from BEETLEJUICE. To me, these are all virtues.
Wes Anderson supervised the new transfer for this Blu-Ray release, so fellow fans of this movie may want to swap out their old DVDs for the updated picture quality. Beyond all the qualities I just argued, it’s indisputably a nice-looking film.
** PICK OF THE WEEK! **
RED RIVER (1948)
The critical consensus considers John Ford and Howard Hawks to be the two film directors who essentially created the popular notion of “John Wayne,” the man born Marion Morrison who became one of the most iconic American movie stars in the lifetime of the medium, in some ways the quintessential American movie star. He may not be your favorite movie star and he isn’t mine, but John Wayne more than any other one star displays America the way America has always seen itself, and the way the rest of the world sees us — upright, noble, mannered, bullish, loud, confident, decisive, and pitiless.
It was Raoul Walsh who gave Wayne his first lead role, but it was Ford who — with 1939’s STAGECOACH — made him a star. Ford made twice as many films with Wayne than Hawks did, necessary Wayne films including THE SEARCHERS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, but Hawks was no less crucial in filling in the John Wayne persona. Of the handful of films Hawks made with Wayne — RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO, HATARI!, EL DORADO, and RIO LOBO (Hawks’ final film) — the first two are the most essential. One of the great genre renaissance men in cinema history, Hawks could shoot any genre of film he attempted. Though his films with Wayne were almost all Westerns, Hawks still mixed things up by pairing the stolid Wayne with younger stars and atypical performers. Ford also frequently had Wayne spar with younger foils, for example John Agar and Jeffrey Hunter, but those younger actors were a different sort of challenge. RED RIVER‘s Montgomery Clift was a significant sex symbol, and more importantly, a method actor, whose stage training made him a different kind of performer than Wayne, a product of movies from the start. RIO BRAVO was arguably even more intriguing and eclectic, throwing a pair of pop stars at Wayne, but that’s another story.
Clift’s first film role was RED RIVER, so his freshness was both text and subtext; he played an upstart in the film, and his casting served a similar function. Wayne may have looked the part of a matinee idol in STAGECOACH, but by 1948 he already conveyed the authority of age. He was very clearly the senior player to Clift, and so too was his character, cattle rancher Tom Dunson, to Clift’s character, adopted protégé Matthew Garth. Throughout the progression of the story, which concerns an arduous interstate cattle drive, the two become romantic rivals, sparring over the affections of a lady, played by Joanne Dru, who is no bland ingénue but in fact — typical of Hawks — a vocal and assertive grown woman. There’s actually a sex scene in this movie — off-camera and implied, but proof this is not a simple mainstream oater but a more emotionally complex story for grown folks.
In addition to the hetero love triangle, RED RIVER is also a love story between men — not like that, though it does come noticeably close in places — but the affection between Dunson and Garth is threatened by more than one ‘suitor’ (not enough room here to discuss the evocatively-named gunfighter Cherry Valance) and while tensions between the two men reach the point of mortal enmity, the reconciliation is the total point; in other words, important as she is to the story, RED RIVER is not as much about who ends up with Joanne Dru than it is about how Dunson and Garth resolve their issues.
Beyond all of the above RED RIVER also has lush black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan (RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11) which conjures up the inspiring scale of the Old West, and a typically rollicking old-coot performance by frequent Wayne co-star Walter Brennan as a character named “Nadine Groot.” RED RIVER is a textbook example of the way the old Hollywood movies managed to Trojan-horse psychological sophistication and big ideas into terrifically entertaining mainstream entertainments. The only reasonable excuse to miss out on this lovingly-produced Criterion release of such a classic film is threadbare pockets.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)
Okay, first of all, my distinguished colleague has written the best piece on this new Scream Factory Blu-Ray release which you will find anywhere. I know that’s high praise because I’ve seen a lot of great ones (like this one and this one) over the past couple weeks, but I stand by it. Paul’s piece is next-level If you’ve seen the film, you will recognize what takes place there as completely brilliant.
However — if you haven’t seen the film — avoid all these great pieces for now, since they get into what makes SLEEPAWAY CAMP so unique and, quite frankly, substantial, within the near-endless flood of slasher films of the late 1970s and the 1980s. SLEEPAWAY CAMP is clunky and frequently amateurish in its physical construction, with some truly egregious editing and acting in places, but it accumulates in brutal effectiveness as it goes on, and more importantly, intentionally or not, it’s amazingly advanced as far as sexuality and gender issues go. The notorious shock ending absolutely retains its upsetting and thought-provoking power. Thinking horror fans new to SLEEPAWAY CAMP should pick up this Scream Factory package sight-unseen — you’ll want to watch it again soon after the first viewing.
DEATH SPA (1989)
In the 1980s, the only craze more widespread than slasher films was aerobics. It took the entire decade, but someone finally had that lightbulb appear above their head, and decided to combine the two. 1980’s NIGHTMARE CITY and 1986’s DEMONS 2 mixed scenes of aerobicizing into their chaotic orchestrations of horror, but to my knowledge, only one horror movie has aerobics and exercise setpieces from start to finish. In DEATH SPA you get to watch shapely sweaty people jumping around in spandex leotards, and you also get to watch them die horribly. How can you lose? (I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s always possible they screwed it up.)
This movie actually has people you might recognize, including Rosalind Cash (THE OMEGA MAN), Karyn Parsons (‘Hilary’ from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air!), Chelsea Field (THE LAST BOY SCOUT), and the great Ken Foree (I should not have to put a film title between these parentheses). With that last name they’ve effectively got me committed: I’m gonna pick a copy of DEATH SPA up for myself so I’ll let you all know how it goes.
DAN CURTIS’ BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (TV) (1973)
Presumably nobody needs me to explain who Bram Stoker is. Dan Curtis is the TV producer best known for Dark Shadows, which was a soap opera about a vampire. Admittedly, I’m unfamiliar with the series. I haven’t even seen the 2012 Tim Burton’ Johnny Depp update. But I do know there are a lot of Dark Shadows fans out there. They may be able to recount in more detail than I how Dan Curtis also produced TV-movies of classic gothic tales such as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and most fittingly, Dracula. So that explains the somewhat unwieldy title of DAN CURTIS’ BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (I like how that makes it sound as if they share custody). Despite being tall and sonorous and typecast as a villain, Jack Palance to me still somehow seems an unlikely choice to play the infamous Count, but also a very fascinating choice. I’d watch that. Finding out that Richard Matheson (author of the greatest vampire novel ever) wrote the script means I kind of have to.
*** PICK OF THE WEEK! ***
CHEAP THRILLS (2013)
In my extended rave for this site last year, I called CHEAP THRILLS “an all-night bender of relentless bastardry, with a cluster of brilliantly nasty performances.” I also said “CHEAP THRILLS brings back the antiquated exploitation term “video nasty” and puts the nastiness on full dial. It’s a mean little bastard of a new-generation grindhouse punk classic and you’re probably going to love it. Bet you a hundred bucks.”
That bet still stands. Meanwhile, I already own a copy. My own money is where my mouth is. (Gross. You never know where that money has been.)
*** PICK OF THE WEEK! ***
JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS (2013)
The way I feel about Stephen Chow’s movies is the way you probably feel about Pixar’s movies. JOURNEY TO THE WEST may not be his single best film, but it’s a strong addition to a beautiful filmography. Fleet, funny, broadly universal, and unexpectedly moving, JOURNEY TO THE WEST is the story of a young demon hunter (Wen Zhang) who takes on a wild menagerie of monsters and villains, looking to get them to change their evil ways rather than simply killing them. He’s both aided and bedeviled along the way by a pretty demon hunter (Shu Qi) and her gang of killers (including the insanely cute Chrissie Chau), all of whom would prefer the more extreme option. That relationship is the through-line of the movie, which otherwise progresses from demon battle to demon battle. The characters voyage through a variety of environments; some inviting, like the open-air river battle against a gigantic fish demon, and others less inviting, like the hellish domain of the nightmarish pig demon. Most prominently featured is the Monkey King (Huang Bo), the most duplicitous of the creatures but also the most likable and enjoyable. He’s the reason for the movie’s dance sequence, is all I’m saying. Like all of Stephen Chow’s movies, JOURNEY TO THE WEST reaches heights of joy few movies can match, but also comes with moments of heartbreak. It’s an epic adventure stuffed with comedy that ends up having agreeably spiritual resonance, based as it is on a classical work of literature dating back to the Ming Dynasty. But it also has a giant gorilla. This movie really does have everything you need to get from any movie.
EASTERN BANDITS (2012)
Hard to dig up a lot of information about this Chinese film, which looks a bit like the Asian equivalent of a Western, but that cover art is enormously appealing and all the still frames I’ve seen look beautiful. As an aficionado of Eastern cinema, I will have to look into this one.
How do you start with the phrase “written by the Coen Brothers” and proceed to remove all excitement from it? GAMBIT is a remake of a not-exactly-classic caper film from the 1960s which starred the poetically apt pair of Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine. Ronald Neame (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE) directed it. I can’t exactly tell what appealed to the Coens about the project but I do know it was a work-for-hire situation. The director of the remake is Michael Hoffman, who’s done some watchable stuff but not much to stir the blood. Personally the combination of Cameron Diaz and Colin Firth doesn’t appeal to me much either: Firth seems a decent sort but has never done a movie I’ve felt strongly about, while Cameron Diaz is a sorely unappreciated and daring actress (stop crapping on THE COUNSELOR!) who consistently makes it hard for me to defend her every time I hear her interviewed. Nothing against either of them but I can’t see either one bringing the best out of the other, nor Michael Hoffman bringing the best out of either of them. Alan Rickman can’t prop up everything. Boy, this has been a negative paragraph. No fun. That’s why I prefer to be positive. Let’s move on.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)
This is a re-release to mark the June 13th opening of the sequel. I liked the first one well enough, though I couldn’t quite understand why half the cast had Scottish accents and half didn’t, and why most of the dragons looked and acted more like cats. Anyone?
LONGMIRE: THE COMPLETE FIRST AND SECOND SEASONS (TV) (2012-2013)
Based on a series of mystery novels by Wyoming writer Craig Johnson, Longmire the series is pretty excellent from what little I’ve seen of it (only two or three episodes at press time). I like the remote setting, it’s well-filmed and well-acted, and I like to see Lou Diamond Phillips in something good again. Grindhouse fans will be happy to know that J. Michael Muro has directed some episodes. You may and should know and love him as the director of STREET TRASH.
JACK IRISH: SET 2 (TV) (2013)
Now I did not know that Guy Pearce had a TV series. How did I not know that Guy Pearce had a TV series? Is it awesome? How could it not be? SPACE PRISON!
ENDLESS LOVE (2014)
Hey, I know that guy. That’s the guy who did that thing to Mariah Carey in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. I don’t trust that little fink. If you want to see him in a romance movie, here it is. Proof that they will remake just about anything, this is a remake of the song by the same name by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. (I know, I know, the song came from a movie of the same name. But who remembers the movie? All I know from “Endless Love” is this.) They don’t make movies like this for me, which is fine. But let’s move on again, quickly.
AIRPLANE VS. VOLCANO (2014)
Well you had me at Robin Givens, but let me get it all out on the table: I am in love with that title. I love it. AIRPLANE VS. VOLCANO. Have we run out of giant animals to battle each other while faded celebrities stare up in confused astonishment? ROBO-BANDICOOT VS. KARATE WOMBAT killed off the franchise for now? No problem. The Asylum can not be deterred. We can have inanimate objects battle each other. Everyone knows that the airplane and the volcano are natural enemies. You put those two in the same room and the fur is going to fly. Readers of a certain age may remember the notorious airplane/volcano feud, which lasted from October 1983 to August 1985. This film dramatizes those epochal events. “Based on the true story!”
So there it is. More catching-up to follow. Stay tuned!
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