Saturday, December 31, 2005


Well, the final minutes of 2005 have finally arrived. My wife, my daughters and I are relatively safe from overzealous revelers and drunks firing weapons into the air as the hour creeps toward midnight and the first minute of 2006. As tradition goes in Japanese households, in this country and the motherland, New Year’s Day is perhaps the most important holiday of the year, and each dish in the day’s elaborate day-long meal has some significance in indicating, predicting or attempting to influence the fortunes of those who eat it in the coming 12 months.

And New Year’s Eve (at least in my wife’s parents’ house) is no wild party, but instead a festival of relaxation in front of the TV, watching not Dick Clark (or whoever has been dubbed to replace him on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve) but instead a gargantuan, five-hour variety show dedicated to a “competition” between male and female musical performers, who sing in styles ranging from traditional enka to the most modern (often excruciating) pop and rock straight off the Japanese charts. At the end of the program, a panel of judges and the members of the audience present in the huge theater where the special is videotaped vote for who they felt offered the best performances, the men or the women. Then, no matter who emerges the winner, everyone on stage dances and sings and holds hands as the credits roll, presumably into a brighter, happier year than the one just wrapped up. The whole show is, of course, in Japanese, beamed straight from the Japanese television network NHK, but that’s no hindrance to the kitschy fun to be had by non-Japanese-speaking viewers, if you’ve the right sensibility or receptivity to it. I always jump in with enthusiasm, but around hour three a brisk tumbler of tequila is often a great help to maintain that enthusiasm. (I remember one year getting that agave boost a bit too early and exclaiming a bit too enthusiastically when it was revealed that one of the judges was the great Japanese film director Kon Ichikawa.)

So far this year the men seem to be out of the gate early with some fine, more traditional performances, and one by pop star Moriyama Naotoro, who performed his hit ”Kazahana”, that caught my wife’s ear (and eye). My own tastes run toward the enka performed by the women, although there was one woman early on who I thought was mesmerizing, both in physical appearance and performance, who performed her modern pop tune while playing a traditional samisen. (I missed her name, unfortunately, though I mentioned to my wife at the time that she looked very much like a Japanese Jane Seymour.) Still to come: performances by insanely popular superstar popsters SMAP (don’t ask me!), Dreams Come True and male enka vocalist Takao Horiuchi, known around my parents-in-law’s house as the “Thank You! Man” for his unerring signature of ending even the saddest ballad with a triumphant “Thank you!” in English. And that’s not to even mention the slightly loopy female enka singer, and her male counterpart, whose main function in the competition is to perform in the wildest, most gigantic and elaborate costumes imaginable, some of them 40 or 50 feet in height, in a last-ditch attempt to tip the scales of the audience’s sympathies toward their respective genders. I started watching this show with my wife and her family about 15 years ago, and now I can’t imagine a New Year’s Eve without it. I’ve had more fun sitting around in my underwear drinking tequila with my extended family watching this crazy program than I ever did doing the mandatory New Year’s Eve club-hopping when I was younger and desperately trying to impress my soon-to-be-wife. I think she’s more impressed that I seem to be as well-versed in this family TV “tradition” as I am, and now, with my daughters running around the house causing distractions and having their own fun, the Japanese New Year’s competition show is even more fun than ever. Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!

I’m guessing, however, that you’re not spending your New Year’s Eve wondering whether the men or the women in that NHK studio will reign supreme when all the voting balls are counted. You’re probably not even near a computer. But even so, there’s still New Year’s Day, and perhaps even Monday, an official holiday for most of the working world (don’t get me started…), to poke around the Internet. And so, in the interest of enriching your first surfing experiences in 2006, let me get all GreenCine on you for a moment, if I may. Most of you will already know what that means, and for those of you who don’t, first, shame on you, and second, click the link and start the new year hooked up to the most essential blog I can think of for the dissemination of quality film culture—journalism, blogging, reviews, commentary, online viewing and listening. One look at the great work David Hudson, Craig Phillips and the rest of their staff do on a daily basis—making access to great writing easier than easy for all of us—will make you a daily reader. I’ve been looking in on their site—“joined at the hip” to their terrific Bay Area-based on-line film rental site GreenCine (for people who like to watch—thank you, Ben…)—for about two and a half years now, and I don’t even want to remember what life was like without them. Right now Craig has his top 10 list posted, in addition to all the rest of the great links to lists from film journals, papers and blogs. Enjoy!

And by “getting all GreenCine on you” I mean, the best way I could think of to salute my own humble readership and wish you all the best for 2006 and beyond was to emulate, for one night only, GreenCineDaily’s fantastic resource gathering and offer up a few fun places for you to visit, just in case the prospect of bowl games and parades doesn’t exactly get your engine revving. Some of the links that follow were, in fact, brought to my attention by GreenCineDaily, and for that I will thank them again. Some of the others were culled from my own connections to bloggers and writers with whom I’ve become acquainted over the last year. Some I stumbled on by pure, happy luck. There are even a couple that bear no real, tangible relationship to cinema, yet are so compelling and/or readable and/or moving and/or hilarious that I just had to pass them along. Here, then, are some of the best ways I could think of to start your 2006 reading experience, and mine.

One of my favorite critics, David Edelstein, ended his 10-year relationship with Slate this past Thursday with the conclusion of the Slate Movie Club, an addictive, infuriating, exhilarating enclave of film critics that gather under Edelstein’s aegis annually to assess the year in film, and to attend to whatever pertinent issues—societal, theoretical, personal—informed that year. The 2005 gathering includes the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, the New York TimesA.O. Scott, the L.A. Weekly’s Scott Foundas and, of course, Edelstein, and is as vital and worth reading as ever. Edelstein takes over senior film critic duties at New York magazine later this month.

Another cinephiliac gathering of sorts is the Village Voice Take Seven film critics poll. This year’s overwhelming winner for best picture is David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but that’s only the tip of the poll’s iceberg. In addition to top ten lists from senior critic J. Hoberman, and Dennis Lim and Michael Atkinson, there is the poll’s annual, and lengthy, column space devoted to the extemporaneous commentary of the various critics involved in the poll who attempt to out-hipster or otherwise one-up either each other or the bad taste of the general viewing public. Given a forum of my own this year, this is bait I cannot resist—I will revisit some of these comments in a post a little later in the week and offer some commentary of my own.

Dave Kehr talks about the year in DVD releases for the New York Times, while the technoelves over at DVD Beaver offer their choice for the Best DVD of 2005 (not really much of a hint: it was in my Christmas stocking this year!)

Anne Thompson of the Hollywood Reporter’s Risky Biz has her top-ten list available, along with a ton of everyday items good for keeping abreast of what’s going on in the industry and in film journalism. (Why, she even led off her December 27 post with a link to a certain film quiz we’re fond of around here… well, everyone except for the Mysterious Adrian Betamax…)

David Poland picks the best movies you should have seen, but for some reason didn’t.

He was looking to stir things up a bit, and that’s just what he did-- The Reeler goes off on top ten lists and what he perceives as the masturbatory tendencies of critics this time of year, and on Cinemarati Filmbrain takes issue with his ire.

The most surprising observation of the year comes from Grady Hendrix, who discovered through intense exposure to the extensive DVD extras available on Warner’s The Dukes of Hazzard disc, that the big-screen TV show is perhaps the best movie ever made.

Pop on over to 24 Lies a Second for terrific new articles on director Guillermo Del Toro and the ‘70s cinema of Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, plus juicy and spirited (but refreshingly civil) debates on King Kong, A History of Violence and much, much more. 24 Lies’s Peter Gelderblom promises a new article examining one of his underappreciated favorites, Jonathan Glazer’s Birth.

More fabulous Top ten Lists: Andy Klein of New Times

Aaron Graham trots out his Top Ten, plus a look at the spiffy new DVD edition of Death Race 2000 (and a keen picture of the Real Don Steele from that movie)

Girish sports lists of Top Ten Older Films he’s seen this year, as well as a Top Ten of 2005

Cinephiliac has, easily, the best-designed Top Ten list of the year

Over at DVD Radio you can check out great podcast interviews with George A. Romero, Leonard maltin, Kevin Smith, Miranda July, and even get a report on the Cineschlock-o-Rama Schlockcast of something called The Seduction of Misty Mundae.

Brian, who heads up the essential blog Hell On Frisco Bay, has done more than anything (except the fact that my best friend lives there) to make this die-hard Dodger fan wish he was a citizen of the City by the Bay by offering extensive reports on revival cinema, special screenings and reports on the often tenuous status of the city’s remaining great cinema venues.

Looker offers up some holiday annoyances relating to the audience surrounding him at a recent screening of King Kong, and asks the terribly pressing question, can anything be done to stop New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane?

Flickhead offers the season’s most painful and moving recollection of a night out at the cinema with one parent attempting to hide the effects of a difficult divorce. It’s called ”The Abyss”, and it has nothing to do with James Cameron.

And hey, the drive-ins are still open! Find out what’s playing at the Mission Tiki this weekend, and catch up with your favorite ozoner at the essential site Drive-Ins.Com. For fans of hardtops, check out the endless supply of information and memories linked to every theater, open and closed, in America and elsewhere, at Cinema Treasures.

Finally, cinematically speaking, here’s an article from today’s Los Angeles Times that curdled my urine (thanks to my childhood friend Ron’s dad, Roy Matchett, for coining this particularly vivid phrase that has stuck with me for 30-some years): it’s the story of one Richard Troncone, who has kept a detailed list of every movie he’s seen for the past 40 years, and who is trying to break his own 1972 record of seeing 176 movies in theaters before the ball drops tonight (at this writing, he’s got about an hour and a half—how about that late showing of Hoodwinked, Richard? It’s only 80 minutes long…) The reason my urine got curdled is that I’ve been doing the same thing, but for only 28 years. Damn! One-upped again!

And now, to things non-cinematic:

Do yourself a favor and go get hooked on the writing and societal observations available every day by prolific writer Rodger Jacobs at his fine site 8763 Wonderland.

Or get ready for what just has to be a better 2006 for the Boys in Blue by surfing over to Jon Weisman’s Dodger Thoughts. And while you’re there, be sure to order a copy of Jon’s new book, The Best of Dodger Thoughts. I ordered mine yesterday!

Friend and frequent SLIFR contributor PSaga writes about ”Three People Who Deserve This Blog More Than I Do”, one of whom is our very own the Mysterious Adrian Betamax, and then adds a fourth person, which made me wonder if it was possible to blush in cyberspace…

Blog friend Preacher Beege offers a moving (and at one point scatological—I’m still wondering about this one, Beege) New Year’s Eve tribute to her marriage, which is six years old today.

And finally, speaking of scatology, what better way to launch into the new year than with The Poop Report’s very own Best Of list, which I guarantee is like no other you may have read so far this holiday season. And be sure to check out all the links to some pretty hilarious fecally oriented essays too.

May 2006 keep the turds and the troubles in their proper places and offer to all of you as much pleasure, prosperity, creativity, joy and love as your hearts and souls can accommodate.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

ARMAGEDDON IT! New Year's Eve with TCM (or not)

When I was a teenager learning to love movies and soaking up everything I could once or twice a week at the Alger Theater in Lakeview, Oregon, my friends and I, proud subscribers to Famous Monsters of Filmland, The Monster Times and the relatively sophisticated Castle of Frankenstein (“sophisticated” here meaning, every so often they showed stills of bare breasts from an R-rated Hammer film), looked forward to all the major holidays—Halloween, the occasional Friday the 13th, and, of course, New Year’s Eve. On these nights, Mr. Alger, the theater’s dry-humored proprietor, brought to the silver screen in our hometown special programs of current or semi-current horror films culled from the stables of American International Pictures, Hammer Studios, Amicus Films, and sometimes something even further off the exploitation path, but nothing too outrĂ©— a werewolf biker movie, or perhaps a crummy thriller from Crown International like Nightmare In Wax, starring Cameron Mitchell. If we were lucky, we’d even get a double feature-- Countess Dracula and Vampire Circus is one that leaps to mind. These horror film holidays were always great nights to gather up your friends and get scared, and the movies, no matter how decrepit or low-rent, always managed to offer a chill or two. And on New Year’s Eve, the program would never go past midnight, but oftentimes it came close enough that the evening’s last thrill involved racing home and making it inside before the new year was ushered in without you seeing the ball drop for yourself—on TV, of course.

Turner Classic Movies taps a little of that horror film holiday spirit December 31 with “The End Is Near!” a series designed to exorcise your worst fears (or at least provide you a good, safe place to wallow in them) before the new year ever dawns. Though the title conjures specifically apocalyptic imagery, most of the films on tap are of a more personal scale, depicting (in a couple of instances, quite literally) the seeds of global apocalypse in their earliest stages of development. Whether or not the end, being so near, actually comes is left up to the wile of the protagonists, the whims of fate, and sheer luckless happenstance.

My old neighborhood, Beachwood Canyon, just below the Hollywood sign, passes for the besieged (and fictitious) Santa Mira, California, in this amazing shot from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The fear fest kicks off at 5:00 pm (PST) with Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is a science fiction classic that retains its peerless power to generate existential terror despite being successfully remade by the likes of Philip Kaufman (1978) and Abel Ferrara (1993), and it’s Exhibit “A” in the case for horror and science fiction being among the most adaptable genres when it comes to social critique and metaphorical potency.

Following at 6:30 pm (PST) is director Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment. Known in the United States as The Creeping Unknown, this was Hammer Films’ first international hit, starring Brian Donlevy as British scientist Bernard Quatermass, who leads an expedition to unearth the deadly secrets behind a downed spacecraft, including the reason why the lone survivor of the doomed mission is undergoing a mysterious and life-threatening mutation. Quatermass is relatively restrained in its style and effects, unlike the increasing lurid and gruesome films in which Hammer would come to specialize in the wake of Quatermass’s success, but that restraint is integral to the movie’s mounting sense of dread as it slowly reveals its horrors.

Prime New Year’s Eve Time, 8:00 pm, is reserved for Christian Nyby’s (and Howard Hawks’) The Thing (From Another World), an excellent compliment to the claustrophobic fear generated by the The Quatermass Xperiment. A quick look back at the first three films in Turner’s horror holiday apocalypse-a-thon now reveals a pattern of a much more rarified taste in terror than we were usually exposed to at the Alger Theater when we dared peek between our fingers. But in the case of “The End Is Near!” quality, style and restraint are certainly no barriers to success in terms of frightening New Year’s Eve fare (and if you’re looking for a werewolf biker movie, or even one in which Ingrid Pitt steps naked out of a life-regenerating blood bath, Turner Classic Movies is probably not going to be much help anyway.)

Things get a bit more curdled on the quality scale as we move into our fourth and fifth features, excellent drive-in fare both, but both also definite come-downs from the standard set by the opening three. Showing at 9:30 pm, Director Jack Arnold’s moody, evocative, Theremin-laced It Came from Outer Space isn’t particularly distinctive as a film, but, as Turner’s Jeff Stafford points out, it is a seminal science fiction film that would launch the careers of many key figures in the genre, including Arnold’s (he would go on to direct The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and the brilliant The Incredible Shrinking Man). It would also be Ray Bradbury’s first work as a screenwriter, and it was Universal’s first foray into 3-D-- though the print being shown on TCM is decidedly flat, instances of the director’s attempts to utilize the format by hurling burning asteroids at the audience are still fun to see.

Even less sound as a piece of narrative, The Blob, screening at 11:00 pm, still rates as worthwhile monster fare based on its archetypal 1950s sci-fi structure, its campy acting, the inventive shoestring special effects, an early appearance by soon-to-be screen star Steve McQueen, and that iconic scene of the Blob oozing its way through a movie theater just like the one you’re sitting in right now! (Don’t let the fact that you’ll be watching it at home bother you—the Blob attacks a house or two as well, if memory serves. And, don’t forget, this is the one with which you’ll be ringing in the new year…)

The TCM fright marathon caps off at half past the first hour of 2006 (12:30 am) with the 1960 shocker Village of the Damned, a chilling classic designed to make all well-meaning parents second-guess the choice to procreate. John Carpenter successfully carved out his own screen classic by remaking The Thing (From Another World) (and hewing closer to the original short story in the process), but he was much less successful in 1995 reimagining this particular bit of fright film history. The original Village of the Damned remains the seminal scary kid movie, one to which The Omen, The Boys from Brazil and scores of other similarly tot-phobic films can trace back the roots of their own toddler terror.

Assuming you’re not either completely freaked out or fast asleep by this point, TCM extends the fear factor for one more hour at 2:00 am with the original documentary, written and directed by Richard Schickel, entitled Watch the Skies, featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and others in a consideration of the history of the science-fiction film, in particular the invasion variety. If you’re looking for a hands-off way to ring in 2006 with as much paranoia and clammy skin as possible, Turner Classic Movies promises to be a very welcome guest in your TV room on New Year’s Eve.

But, of course, if you’re like me and you tend toward programming your own fare on such occasions, you may decide that even TCM can’t trump your own fevered imagination when it comes to home theater-style revival house horror. For instance, a one-from-every-column New Year’s night of horror at my house might include a couple from the Universal vaults (say, James Whale’s clever and unsettling The Invisible Man, and from the studio’s excellent selection of ‘50s sci-fi, I’ve always favored the aforementioned The Incredible Shrinking Man or Tarantula), something from the Hammer crypt (Plague of the Zombies is straight out of the studio’s top mausoleum drawer), a dollop of American International (The Masque of the Red Death from the Corman stable, and perhaps Count Yorga Vampire from the company’s vital early ‘70s period), a smidgen of Amicus (can’t go wrong with Tales from the Crypt, but I might also seek out the lesser-seen Asylum), and then perhaps something along the lines of Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine, or perhaps something fairly disreputable, like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. After a marathon like that, what lies ahead in 2006 would almost have to be sunnier. Right?

Saturday, December 24, 2005


A ROOM WITH A VIEW: Santa Claus gets to come here tonight? Will he ever leave? This is what it looks like from our bedroom window...

Merry Christmas to the SLIFR faithful and anyone else who just happens to be lurking or stumbling past this site in a pre-holiday haze of indiscriminate Web surfing!

The missus and I are taking a break (and a well-deserved one, if I do say so myself!) with my parents and her parents, and, of course, our beloved daughters, on the Central California coast in a little town a half hour above San Luis Obispo called Cambria. The past two days have been foggy and thick with Carpenterian atmosphere—there’s even a persistent, lonely lighthouse visible from the deck of our bedroom for that extra frisson of winter ambience, or terror, depending on your perspective, of course. (Rumor has it that Adrienne Barbeau broadcasts illegally from there on Christmas Eve, only to disappear when the sun rises—I’ll be tuning around for that tonight, to be sure!)

But yesterday afternoon the sun cut through the pea soup like a samurai sword, bringing us our first day of clear, blue skies, allowing us to experience to ocean with senses other than our olfactory ones. And it is spectacular up here, don’t doubt it. If my Christmas is going to be of the California variety, much better to experience it seaside in a small town full of charm and friendliness (and, I’m sure, plenty of terrifying skeletons in the closet ready to rear their heads at the first notes of the RKO Radio Pictures orchestral fanfare) than in the dry heat of Los Angeles.

Yet, as happy as my fingers have been to have been away from a keyboard even for just two days now, I miss the blogosphere, and I miss the world of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, and I truly look forward to getting back into the groove when we return to the “real” world. I’ve seen, now, that even a 56K connection in a seaside rental house works just fine, though, so now I may not be able to resist logging on and posting a few thoughts a little later on. The missus, my dad and I are just about to get in the car and head to San Luis Obispo for a screening of King Kong at the luxurious old art deco movie palace, the Fremont. I’ll be sure to post a picture or two of that outing, and let you know what I think about the movie too.

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t send along all my best wishes to all my friends, contributors, commenters and various other malcontents and ne'er-do-wells who have made the last year of blogging on SLIFR such a rich and exciting experience for me. I hope the holidays find you safe and happy in the arms of loved ones, or even safe and content in the throes of the excitement of a great book or a superb movie, or just curled up in bed, able to rest peacefully while you await the loud thump and pitter-patter of reindeer hooves on your roofs tonight. There are many reasons why I feel I’m an extremely lucky person, and one of the big ones is that I’m able to write on this site, and that there are so many of you who have honored me with your readership and participation.

To all of you, merry Christmas, happy holidays, and best wishes for the coming year.

'TWAS TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and my father-in-law thinks life looks a whole lot nicer when viewed from the shores of Moonstone beach, Cambria, California

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Dear Santa Claus,

I realize that I’m sending my letter rather late this year, but to paraphrase a certain roller-skating Olympian muse, I have to believe you are magic, that somehow this missive will get spirited straight from the blogosphere into your mailbox at the North Pole, and that you will be able to make a quick stop off at Best Buy before arriving at my house. I know, Santa, that you may not have heard of some of these titles, but really, don’t be afraid to ask that friendly associate, the one with the blue shirt and the yellow tag logo who’s loitering on the corner of the “anime” aisle with a bunch of his buddies, to help you out. He won’t know most of them either, but he is officially authorized to amble over to the house computer, take three whacks at typing the title(s) you specify, and then calling over a floor supervisor who may also be ignorant of the title(s) but who may at least be able to show his employee how to press “enter” to send the computer on its search. I’d send you to more of a specialty store like DVD Planet in Huntington Beach, or even the new Virgin Megastore next to Grauman’s Chinese theater, but Huntington Beach is too far out of your way to fly there and then swing all the way back up to Glendale, and believe me, even you don’t wanna spend any more time than is necessary in Hollywood on Christmas Eve. So Best Buy is fine—their selection will undoubtedly cover most of the stuff I’m shamelessly begging for here, and rooftop sleigh parking is absolutely no problem.

So what would like to see spinning in my DVD player in 2006, you ask? Okay, you asked!

Wong Kar Wai’s cluttered, delirious fever dream of love and longing will test any home theater’s capacity for reproducing, in high-definition, the director’s sensitivity toward a disorienting mise-en-scene and impossibly gorgeous brooding. Those who may have been put off by Ziyi Zhang’s struggle with English in Memoirs of a Geisha should look here instead to discover one of the year’s best performances.

The hypnotically static compositions of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet’s formalist masterpiece often give way to unexpected life, not unlike a Magic Eye painting in motion, bursting the boundaries of the frame and drawing the viewer in to experience its tableaus from the inside out.

The first of Warner Bros.’ modern Batman series that I’ve enjoyed as a film, and not just as an “event” or as a garish regurgitation of the director’s perverse obsessions (be they grotesqueries involving penguins, or imposing nipples on the Batsuit). It has real dramatic weight, good humor, enviable action chops, Michael Caine as Alfred, and Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow.

Three attempts to catch up on Randolph Scott westerns I’ve not yet seen, including the new Warner DVD release of his first collaboration with western maestro Budd Boetticher, the subject of a new Turner Classic Movies biography entitled Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That.

Not to be forgotten, my favorite Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart western has a wagonload of great character moments, surprising dramatic turns and some of the most gorgeous scenery in any western not shot in Monument Valley.

Fritz Lang's literally scalding thriller, in which Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame suffer at the hands of mobsters (his wife is killed in a bomb blast meant for him, she takes a pot of hot coffee in the face from Lee Marvin) and become consumed with the pursuit of revenge. It's here, and in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, that Grahame stakes out her place as an indelible presence in the iconography of film noir.

Howard Hawks’ de facto sequel to Rio Bravo rehashes many of the same situations and characters (but, excepting the Duke, with different actors)—it’s not nearly as good, but it’s still a rousing effort by a director who only had one more left in him, yet another Rio Bravo riff, called Rio Lobo, in which the seams are definitely showing.

What a summer movie should be but is often not, due to bloated budgets and/or directorial hubris—an unpretentious, punchy delight. This is the most purely disarming and unapologetically fun movie I've seen so far in 2005, not at all the train wreck its detractors would have you believe.

The director’s cut of Peter Jackson’s 1996 box-office flop is in the happy tradition of his expansions of the Lord of the Rings movies—for the most part, the added material feels like it should have been there all along. Benefiting most from the new cut is cult actor Jeffrey Combs, never so creepy and hilarious as a special agent sent to investigate the mysterious “frightenings” who turns out to have more than a few skeletons in his own closet (and under his trench coat too).

The Fury, as a device to deliver plot, may be imperfect, but as hellish visual poetry there are sequences here as good as anything De Palma ever directed.

A great, overlooked western by Walter Hill, magisterial and muted. It’s also full of pain regarding the tide of American manifest destiny that is never hampered by Costnerian platitudes or oversimplifications, but instead enriched by the contradictions and contrary impulses found within both the culture of the aggressor and that of the native people. Robert Duvall, as a tracker sympathetic to Geronimo’s cause, has never, with the possible exception of Lonesome Dove, been better.

Three seminal sci-fi entries-- Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Five Million Miles to Earth and It Came From Beneath the Sea-- that cemented Harryhausen’s reputation as an effects master and laid the groundwork for genre classics like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, which were just around the corner. Within this box lie the seeds of a thousand Famous Monsters of Filmland-stoked nightmares, and just as many delights.

Again, catch-up time— Two new Kino Video releases of Fritz Lang classics that I have not yet seen. Depending on the kindness of Santa, that may not be a condition that lasts much longer…

This year’s hopefuls from the Criterion Collection run the gamut pretty much as the label itself does—Akira Kurosawa’s aching drama of a dying man’s attempt at one final, lasting act to leave behind; Mike Leigh’s searing, millennial nightmare; Robert Bresson’s near-documentary staging of a young pickpocket working the streets of Paris; Samuel Fuller’s nowhere-near documentary tale of a pickpocket who unknowingly lifts some hot microfilm and ends up a target of deadly spies; Kurosawa’s spectacular meditation on King Lear; and Kenji Mizoguchi’s ethereal ghost story.

Speaking of ghost stories, they don’t come much more unnerving than Jack Clayton’s unhurried, dread-soaked adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. And if it’s “Boo!” moments you crave, this one has got the Mother of All “Boo!” Moments tucked inside it, and I’ll be damned if I’ll tell you where.

In honor of Peter Jackson’s big monkey movie, Universal trots out a Toho double feature, including the greatest monster match-up ever filmed-- King Kong vs. Godzilla was the first Toho production I ever saw on the big screen, and no amount of common sense is potent enough to dilute the thrill of that moment. Whether a spiffy DVD version will perpetuate the delusion or pop my daydream balloon of hokum is a question yet to be answered.

The only way I’ll ever get to see this (or Histoire(s) du Cinema) is on DVD, and rather than have it clog up my Netflix queue, I’d rather own it and approach it in my own sweet time.

The L.A. Weekly, in a positive review when this movie briefly appeared in theaters in 1987, described it as Animal House meets Nashville. If you’re like me, nothing could have kept me away from the theater after a capsule review like that. And nothing did—I saw it that opening week, and then even endured Whoopi Goldberg in Fatal Beauty in a torrential downpour at a drive-in just to catch O.C. and Stiggs again as the second feature. Now it has very quietly snuck onto DVD, and they thought I’d never notice…

So sue me…

I have a vague memory of seeing either the first or the third Sabata film on TV years ago, and though I remember virtually nothing about it, those titles have always loomed fairly large in the back of my brain, naturally, due to Lee Van Cleef’s presence (Sabata was played by Yul Brynner in the first sequel), but also because they are very rarely talked about in the realm of the spaghetti western cycle. I hold out hope that there might be some unexpected surprises and pleasures—or at the very lest some spectacular Panavision cinematography—within this boxed set.

Don Siegel’s elegiac western, which would end up the capper to John Wayne’s career, has the iconic figure facing down a diagnosis of cancer, as well as villains from his past who rise up one last time to try to cut him down, all while he tries to pass on a little something to the son of a widow whom he has befriended before he dies. Sentimental, powerful work from the Duke is matched by his director’s straight-arrow, unflinching direction to stand as a fitting and final testament to a legend of cinema westerns.

Seasons six and seven are The Simpsons on an unprecedented roll—essential stuff.

And then there’s another icon-- Jet Li, in certainly his best English-language film, taps unexpected streams of emotion while director Louis Letterier and martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo Ping guide him through some of the most explosive and poetically realized fight sequences of his career.

I hope I’ve not been too greedy, Santa, and I certainly will understand if you’re unable to come through with all of these titles on Christmas morning, or any of them for that matter. Cinema is nothing if not a place where we can let our fantasies run free to get all the exercise they need, and if I must continue merely fantasizing about owning these titles, then so be it. Besides, there’s always Netflix and my Ever-Changing Queue. Even so, it’s fun to imagine a DVD library big enough to hold all these delights and 1,001 more. And, truth be told, Santa, I just wanted to see how quick you are on your feet with impossibly last-minute requests! The perpetuation of my childlike innocence and fragile belief system depends on your response.

Oh, and there’s a meat loaf in the fridge with your name on it, if you get hungry and you’re sick of all those treacly cookies the other houses set out for you. Just don’t touch my beer.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 16, 2005


Well, enthusiastic students here at SLIFR U, Christmas is just around the corner, and most of you will be taking some precious time off to spend with your family, loved ones or fellow inmates. But what would taking a break from your worries and your strife (my apologies to Baloo the Bear) be without something intrusive and insistent to gnaw at the back of your mind while you try to enjoy a simple cup of wassail or a gristly wing off that Christmas goose?

Something like, say, homework…?

With that, it is my pleasure to introduce the newest member of the faculty here at our esteemed institution of learning, fresh from a long, spirited, and sometimes controversial tenure at Medfield College. Professor Ned Brainerd has taken a sabbatical from his experiments in the kinetic properties of rubber-based substances to kindly offer up 25 questions to take along with us to ensure a happy holiday. The professor felt the number of questions was appropriate for the Christmas season (December 25, see?)—he would have gone for nine in honor of Hanukkah (number of candles on a menorah), but correctly figured that that wouldn’t make for enough of an annoying brain teaser, and he had to admit ignorance as to whether there is any number significantly related to Kwanzaa.

So, if your fingerprints have not already been sufficiently worn down by a 2005 filled with typing at work and blogging comments at home (or vice versa), then by all means pull up a too-small wooden desk, massage your head in order to dislodge the most insignificant bits of knowledge and memory, and welcome to Professor Brainerd’s Christmas Vacation Quiz.

Say the magic word—“Flubber!”—and begin…

1) Describe the moment when you knew you loved the movies

2) What prop or costume from a film do you most covet? *

3) Take a famous role and recast it (for example, Audrey Hepburn instead of Andie McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral) *

4) Charlton Heston or George Kennedy?

5) Best performance in an otherwise terrible movie

6) Worst performance in a famously revered or otherwise great movie

7) Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing?

8) Favorite Walter Hill movie

9) Favorite musical score from a movie

10) Describe the most scared you’ve ever been in a theater, or the scariest moment you recall seeing in a movie

11) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?

12) Favorite Holiday Movie (doesn’t have to be Christmas oriented)

13) Worst Holiday movie (doesn’t have to be Christmas oriented)

14) Your all-time favorite hammy actor

15) Favorite Federico Fellini movie

16) Your favorite film critic

17) Jason Lee or Jason Mewes?

18) Best use of a natural location setting in a movie

19) Worst squandering of a natural location setting in a movie

20) Favorite song from a movie

21) Madeline Kahn or Teri Garr?

22) Favorite Roger Corman Movie

23) Your biggest movie-star crush

24) Director you’ve always felt deserved more attention than he/she ever got or has gotten up to this point, and a highlight for you from his/her career

25) Michelle Yeoh or Ziyi Zhang?

26) If the movies’ were to give you a Christmas gift, or a gift for 2006, what would it be? (I mean “the movies” in the most general sense—the film industry, the actors, a director making a certain film, whatever)

* Thanks for the suggestions, Jen!

Okay, so that's 26. But what's the holiday season without a surprise stocking stuffer? Happy holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 12, 2005


Just because I was Googling in a mad rush the other day, I ran across a still from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s merciless, seductive noir starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. It didn’t take me long to go into a reverie about the movie and all of its wonderful, haunted twists and turns, and to remember how good she and Mitchum were together. I’d forgotten that she actually appeared in Taylor Hackford’s ill-advised remake of Out of the Past, entitled Against All Odds, essentially playing the mother of the character she played in the original film. I’d also forgotten that she played Peggy Lipton’s mother on several episodes of Twin Peaks. And she was good in a not particularly inspiring role as Lon Chaney’s second wife in the lush Cinemascope biography Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney. But probably the movie in which I love her most, perhaps the only other movie in which I’ve seen her, is Don Siegel’s The Big Steal, which reteamed her with Mitchum on the lam into Mexico, tossing back and forth some excellent barbed-wire dialogue and throwing a much harsher Mexican sun on the sexual chemistry that was more appropriately subtle and shadowy (but no less strong) between them in Out of the Past. Greer had that sharpness, that insouciance that I find so attractive in actresses of this period, yet at the same time she wasn’t someone you’d look at and necessarily think “tough cookie” like you would of, say, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, or Forty Guns, or Ball of Fire. Greer’s toughness was hidden underneath a veil of curves and Midwestern appeal, a nonthreatening outward appearance that made the revelation of the thicker skin, the meaner mouth, and in the case of Out of the Past the blacker heart within, even more disturbing.

I’ll give the last word to David Thomson. I especially love his description of her in the first paragraph quoted below. Thomson wrote about Greer upon her death in 2001:

“I can't really say that Jane Greer was a great actress, or that she might have been, given better opportunities. Chances are not, or she'd have stuck at it. But she had a lethal smile, long floppy hair and eyes like large blueberries floating in cream -- you wanted to play bobbing for eyes. She was one of those women you could smell, even on film. Have you noticed that? There are some actresses who have a fragrance, or a scent. And with Jane Greer it was very sweet and sophisticated, until you got the aftertaste -- and there was something like death in that.

You could say she was lucky.
Out of the Past is a very good film: Jacques Tourneur knew how to direct such pulp so that it seemed poetic, she had Nicholas Musuraca to gather the shadows around her pale face, she had yards of tart dialogue and she had Robert Mitchum to play off.

But give her credit. Just as she made it absolutely evident why (Mitchum) would do the stupidest things for her, without really doing anything more erotic than getting soaked in the rain in one scene, she made it quite clear -- in the sense of don't tell me I didn't warn you -- that she was treacherous, spiteful and entirely selfish.”