Archive for Blu-Ray
This 17 million dollar adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s fast-paced post-nuclear holocaust adventure novel was expected to be a big hit for 20th Century Fox in 1977 and cost almost twice the amount of the other more bizarre space opera that the studio had contemplated shutting down the previous year. When STAR WARS broke the bank, Fox put DAMNATION ALLEY (briefly re-titling it SURVIVAL RUN) on the shelf for a year to re-edit scenes and add an apocalyptic glow to the skies among other spfx band-aids. Upon release, the film’s publicity centered on two things: the massive “Landmaster” — a 12 wheel armageddon RV designed by Dean Jeffries; and the sonic sensation of SOUND 360, another version of the Sensurround system that rumbled through theaters during the disaster movie era. Still, in the wake of George Lucas’s opus, DAMNATION ALLEY received poor reviews and was later double-billed with Ralph Bakshi’s much cooler WIZARDS for a nifty dystopic double-bill. Zelazny was unhappy with the changes made to his perfectly realized SF pulp novel, altering the plot and notably removing the focus from the Snake Plisskenesque anti-hero, Hell Tanner, to a ragtag team who encounter a series of nuclear tainted threats from redneck mutants to giant scorpions.
Directed in standard 70’s big screen television style by Jack Smight (HARPER, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, and AIRPORT 75), DAMNATION ALLEY lacks a strong central POV or understanding of the genre. I don’t think there’s one memorable image. The film was heavily edited so it’s not fair to lay all the fault upon the director; the episodic script doesn’t drive the narrative as opposed to Zelazny’s race-against-time plot. The cast does what they’re asked without compensatory characterization. George Peppard plays the stoic military leader with a shaky Texas accent and Jan Michael Vincent is motorcyclist Hell Tanner, congenial and gorgeous (for a dude). Dominique Sanda plays the beautiful female survivor and Jackie Earle Haley is the ragamuffin orphan. Poor Paul Winfield gets eaten by cockroaches. Out of the actors, Haley registers the most, low key and likable. There’s little for the players to do but react to the myriad catastrophes minus the occasional respite for post-nuclear reflection; the only scenes with any emotional resonance are the opening where the military watches the nuclear war with clinical dispassion and when the characters play dusty slot machines in a deserted casino as the sounds of Vegas rise on the soundtrack. Speaking of, Jerry Goldsmith provides a grand score.
All could be forgiven if DAMNATION ALLEY at least delivered in the special effects department. It’s revealing that a 17 million dollar budget could not provide even a minute of visual awe compared to the 7 million dollars spent on the non-stop wonders of STAR WARS. And for a film of this expense to rely on stock footage of ICBM missiles in lieu of a creative solution within the first few minutes shows the difference between a vision and a committee. The giant scorpions that Tanner cycles through were originally motorized puppets (see lobby card) but were optically replaced by actual insects, a cheap effect that Bert I. Gordon did more convincingly the same year in EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and that Willis O’Brien did magnificently in THE BLACK SCORPION 20 years earlier. The major spfx added in post-production were the psychedelic skies (using lasers) that would look dandy if not so awkwardly placed behind the actors and landscape. Even a sudden flash tsunami in Detroit (?) that submerges the Landmaster can’t compare to Toho’s meticulous 1960’s miniatures.
The film’s chaotic editing is matched by the abrupt climax that feels as if the third act was simply tossed. The wonderful people over at Shout! Factory have announced an anamorphic DVD/Blu-Ray with extra features that should shed light on studio intention and excised footage (some of which turned up in the TV version). While ultimately unsatisfying as apocalyptic adventure, DAMNATION ALLEY belongs to that last gasp of dystopic studio fare before STAR WARS gave audiences a new hope.
Everything I know about film-making I learned from Alfred Hitchcock. Yet I rarely speak of him or his films here, despite the fact that when I became interested in the production of movies, I devoured all of his ouevre, read everything from Cahiers to Spoto to Truffaut, and broke down his films by examining his set-pieces or other unique visual moments that stood out. I also became entranced by the stunning cinematography of his greatest collaborator, cinematographer Robert Burks. At a recent screening of SORCERER, William Friedkin responded to a query that all you had to do to learn about film was study Hitchcock. He’s right.
So for the record, my three favorite Hitchcocks are in order: REAR WINDOW; NORTH BY NORTHWEST…and ROPE. Yes, I adore VERTIGO for its dark vision and PSYCHO for its artistic shock, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN for the brilliant Robert Walker, and the remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for its editing elan, and even THE BIRDS for its sheer audacity, among others. Yet ROPE has always been a bit of the odd-film out, often written off as a gimmick due to Hitchcock’s idea of filming in real-time, with ten-minute long takes broken by clever editing (as befits Patrick Hamilton’s stage play). But ROPE was also Hitchcock’s first color film, and the first to star James Stewart. ROPE is also his most subversive film until PSYCHO given the barely-concealed homosexuality of the lead killers, loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, wherein the two lover/killers murdered for the “thrill.” John Dall stars as Brandon Shaw, the model of a smug Ivy League sociopath and his worried, weaker paramour, Phillip Morgan, the late Farley Granger in his second Hitchcock film after STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. The couple’s homosexuality is played close to the closet while Shaw’s ecstasy through the strangulation of his friend, David, is subtlety presented as post-coital, psycho-erotica.
The screenplay by Arthur Laurents and Hume Cronyn focuses on a dinner party for the now-departed David, his family and fiance, Janet Walker, and on the cat and mouse mind-games that result when the headmaster who inspired the pair’s Nietzschean attitude towards life and death, arrives and suspects foul play. The playing out of the evening’s action in an unbroken narrative adds great tension as Hitchcock’s meticulous camera glides among the shifting set, part voyeur and part public. The chest that holds the body acts as the morbid dinner table, further creating suspense for the killers and their unwitting guests. So if ever a film cried out to be directed in “one long take,” then ROPE certainly qualifies.
And as John Waters rightly pointed out in his brilliant bio, “Shock Value,” the glass encased apartment where all the action takes place is indeed the greatest set in motion picture history. In some ways, the locale is the primary character. Hitchcock’s German Expressionist influence can be seen in the wonderful slowly darkening skyline window that segues from late afternoon blue into a surreal orange filament over the macabre proceedings, an image worthy of Lang and Murnau except in glorious Technicolor.
Though this is clearly based on a play with its grandiose themes and speechifying, I’m a sucker for grandiose themes and speechifying. Therefore I accept the actors are pitched on a more theatrical level, the bonus being the dialogue and delivery is often sharp and witty. I particularly like the bitchy banter between Brandon and his ex, Janet (well played with self-pleased ardor by Joan Chandler.) I think John Dall’s Brandon Shaw is one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains, and his constant smirking and condescencion just borders on camp (and I’m sure a Castro Theatre audience watches this film with apropos hoots or howls). “Good Americans usually die young on the battlefield, don’t they,” he says staring at the trunk that holds his friend’s body. What Dall expertly projects is a man infinitely pleased with himself; as if he’s performing for his own audience — or those few who could appreciate his superior intellect. Thus his sociopathic tact of inviting his brilliant headmaster to the soiree.
Even the dim, paranoid Phillip realizes Brandan is not as smart as he supposes by wanting this probing presence. Farley Granger is just right as Phillip, uncomfortable in the role his smug lover has decreed, but not weak enough that he won’t throw his moneyed weight around when need be. It’s clear that someone as insecure as Brendan needs a more insecure partner to bully. While it might appear a thankless task to descend into guilty hysterics, Granger has the right mix of privileged naivete and alcoholic swagger. As for the rest of the cast, Cedric Hardwicke stands out as David’s decent, worried father.
In fact, at first glance, their mild mannered mentor Rupert Cadell shares a similar superiority complex, though far more wry and nuanced than his students. James Stewart began his long fruitful career with Hitchcock in ROPE yet considers this his least favorite role since he felt miscast as an academic intellectual (Cary Grant was the first choice). I wholeheartedly disagree — this is easily one of my favorite Stewart performances. I totally buy him as a sly Faulkner-esque teacher transplanted to the East Coast, and that’s how Stewart plays Rupert. He loves to gently shock or deflate the party guests with a twinkle in his eye. His ivory tower facade crumbles as he begins to suspect Brendan and Phillip have perverted his ideas to the worst extreme. This is when Stewart shines and his growing fearful weariness is palatable; I LOVE his on-the-nose, explosive speech at the climax — if barely prodded, I can do a pretty mean impersonation.
Technically, ROPE is quite accomplished and Hitchcock’s roving camera (cinematography by William Vall and Joseph Valentine) is something to behold. Contrary to legend, there are actual cuts in the film outside the end of reel breaks. The penultimate one is extremely powerful, trained as your eye has become to the fluid camera. One can only marvel at the technical ingenuity required to dolly the giant 35mm cameras of 1948 through revolving walls. Yet Hitchcock was able to compose masterful frames with the lush lenses. The shot of James Stewart holding up the lid to the trunk, his stunned face halo’d by the city’s neon light is in my pantheon of great Hitchcock images.
So why is ROPE In my top tier of Hitchcock films? The director himself wrote it off as a failed experiment. It’s not just due to my perverse nature to single out cinematic fringe work; when I was studying his films, ROPE stood out for me not just because of the experimental style but the sexual subversions (considered far too shocking in its day) and dark satire of elitist, Darwinian philosophy. The script also plays with themes of class division, not only in the academic/intellectual realm as evidenced by Brendan’s Superman ideals, but the treatment of the housekeeper by the pompous aunt and others, who look pained to acknowledge her at all. The atmosphere of the film is quite evocative, instilling a pulp novel Manhattan cultural sensibility, highlighted by Rupert’s wistful lines to Brendan as he reluctantly prepares to leave the doomed party: “I almost wish I was going with you. It might be rather exciting. Driving at night always is, but driving with you and Philip now might have an additional element of…suspense.” If ROPE is too-often put on the backburner of Hitchcock’s works, at least one can appreciate this unique, experimental cinematic treatsie as a starting point for his next, most glorious 1950’s phase.
There it is, folks: the official Criterion cover for the original 2 1/2 first cut of Woody Allen’s ANHEDONIA, before he and master editor Ralph Rosenblum shaped the film down to 90 minutes and a new title: ANNIE HALL (1977). Both have denied the cut exists at all as it was never intended to be the final version. Apparently, Rosenblum did indeed make an excellent tape copy that was recently unearthed among some of his personal reels. Criterion, Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman have been working on this project completely under the radar as per Woody’s understandable caution given his reluctance to revisit any of his films for their video release. The Blu-Ray will feature a good as print as possible given its tape origins, but allegedly looks terrific in Gordon Willis’s 1:85 color palette. The image from the Blu-Ray cover above takes place after Alvy Singer is arrested in Los Angeles and placed in, yes, Precint 13; the restored ANHEDONIA includes this important moment where Alvy escapes a beating and briefly bonds with his fellow prisoners by making them laugh. We’ll also get those famed scenes such as Woody meeting God; going to Hell; playing basketball against the Knicks, etc. The Criterion disc retails for $29.95, a steal to actually view the legendary first cut of what would become ANNIE HALL. After all, we need the eggs.
This is undoubtedly THE video release of the year, and let me say, quite possibly, of the 21st century. Yes folks, a re-mastered version of Jerry Lewis’s famous unseen 1970 cinematic statement, THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. Although he actually shot most of the film using his own funds when the producers skipped town, the rights were tied up others, including the outraged original screenwriters, Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton, and for other various reasons, the final 35mm result remained in legal limbo, acquiring barnacles of myth since only a few have seen Lewis’s personal opus. Defying all reality as befits his oeuvre, Jerry Lewis and Criterion with other interested parties finally made the unimaginable happen with the announcement of the Blu-Ray premiere of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, featuring a new 2:35.1 anamorphic print struck from Lewis’s own perfectly preserved reels. Unlike Woody Allen, Lewis is a serious archivist so this amazing disc will include not only the remastered film, but a two hour documentary directed by Peter Bogdanovich, featuring numerous out-takes and behind-the-scenes material — including an hour’s worth of actual video assist footage from the production. At only 19.95, this is a beautiful treat for cinephilic fans of The Total Film-Maker.
At the recent STAR WARS Celebration event, the news was unscrolled about the upcoming Blu-ray box set (with deleted scenes):
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (August 14, 2010) – Today at Star Wars Celebration V, Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment announced that the complete Star Wars Saga will come to Blu-ray Disc with a worldwide release in Fall 2011. The Star Wars Blu-ray Box Set will feature all six live-action Star Wars feature films utilizing the highest possible picture and audio presentation, along with extensive special features – including documentaries, vintage behind-the-scenes moments, interviews, retrospectives and never-before-seen footage from the Lucasfilm archives.
“Blu-ray is the absolute best way to experience Star Wars at home – in pristine high definition,” said George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars Saga. “The films have never looked or sounded better.”
To seal the geek deal, they presented a cut scene that would have been Luke Skywalker’s reveal in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) — in a word, it’s awesome, connects THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK fully to the story, and Luke even looks like the Emperor in his robe. I LOVE the tilt down to him rebuilding his light saber, prepping to save Han Solo, and a future challenge to Darth Vader. This single beat gives ROTJ an entirely new tone from the outset (though I do like Luke’s first appearance in the film).
I’ve always said Mark Hamill has never received enough credit for the series, and it’s strange to read sub-ironic putdowns of his performance today from some quarters. Funny that we all loved him in all three at the time and actually, he’s the only character to have a full arc across the trilogy; Hamill perfectly segues from Luke’s “gee whiz” teen qualities to his more confident, impatient warrior in TESB to his fully developed Jedi Knight in ROTJ. It’s just a scientific fact that the emotional high point of RETURN OF THE JEDI is the moment when Luke and Darth Vader clash light sabers in silhouette as John Wiliam’s operatic chorus rises, signifying the duo’s destiny at its peak. If we didn’t believe in Hamill’s intense, sincere performance, that scene would never have worked. Nor would the films. As for this clip, I love the cheering and “woo woo”s from the crowd — it reminds me of how people used to react to the STAR WARS films, the best communal audiences I’ve ever experienced in a theater. Now, about releasing those original pre-digitized versions of the trilogy…