All posts by Stuart Galbraith IV

It-Came-(1)

3-D Film Archive’s Robert Furmanek Discusses ‘September Storm’ and ‘It Came from Outer Space’

SS-22

When I suggested doing an interview with Robert Furmanek of the 3-D Film Archive in conjunction with their Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the restoration of September Storm (1960), little did either of us realize that such promotion was virtually unnecessary. Despite the picture’s obscurity, the campaign is proving an overwhelming success, and may exceed its goal even as I write this:

World Cinema Paradise: September Storm is a real oddity in that the vogue for studio-produced 3-D features had completely dried up by 1955. How did it come to be made in 3-D?

Robert Furmanek:  There were some successful 3-D reissues in late 1957/1958 (Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, plus House of Wax with Phantom of the Rue Morgue), and producer Edward L. Alperson felt there was still some interest in the process. Alperson had an interest in 3-D going back to 1952 with Bwana Devil. September Storm was produced independently and test screenings went very well so it was eventually picked up for release by Fox.

WCP: I imagine it must have been much more difficult shooting in dual anamorphic than spherical widescreen, or was it shot flat and converted to CinemaScope, via the SuperScope system (and like Super 35 in more recent years)?

Furmanek: It was shot full-aperture with the Natural Vision rig and the anamorphic negatives were extracted optically by special effects wizard Ray Mercer and Deluxe labs.

ss-8.31.60

WCP: What were some of the unique challenges for the filmmakers, and for you in restoring it? Could you theoretically, created alternate widescreen versions while you’re at it?

Furmanek: If the original open-matte camera negatives survived, we could create a widescreen version in various aspect ratios but the only existing 35mm left/right elements are the conformed anamorphic CinemaScope version.The usual color fading plus various levels of vinegar syndrome in different reels presented some major technical obstacles. But Archive Technical Director Greg Kintz doesn’t give up easily (check out Gog) and literally works miracles in creating a flawless 3-D master!

WCP: The color restoration on Gog truly is amazing. I’ve read that. at least 20-odd years ago, the only known 3-D elements were held by the Library of Congress. Is that were you’re sourcing your materials?

Furmanek:  No, the Library of Congress does not have 3-D elements. We acquired the 35mm anamorphic negatives from the copyright holder.

WCP: Was it stereophonic as well? Do those elements exist?

Furmanek: No, it was released mono optical only.

SS-8.18.60

WCP: How extensive was its 3-D theatrical release versus theaters showing it “flat?”

Furmanek: Most major cities played the 3-D version and it went flat for sub-run and smaller towns.

WCP: Was the film ever broadcast on commercial television, or syndicated in its 2-D version? I don’t ever recall seeing it anywhere.

Furmanek: It was syndicated for many years in a flat, murky 16mm pan and scan print. From the havoc that created on the compositions, you would never know they spent ten weeks filming on location in Majorca! It has not been seen anywhere in 3-D since 1960.

WCP: Did you acquire the rights from Fox, or are they held elsewhere?

Furmanek: Fox only distributed the film in 1960. The rights belonged to producer Alperson and have changed hands many, many times over the past five decades. We tracked down the current owner and they didn’t even know it was a 3-D film. Thankfully, they still had both left/right 35mm elements. It’s extremely fortunate that one side wasn’t junked over the past 50 years.

WCP: It seems like you have your work cut out for you in this sense: technically and historically: it’s a very significant film, yet it’s also a movie very few people today have seen or are even aware of. How do you sell a title like this, which requires such special handling?

Furmanek: Just like our 3-D Blu-ray release of Dragonfly Squadron, it will sell based on the pure rarity. Many people have expressed interest simply because they’ve never seen or even heard of the film.

WCP: Kickstarter seems ideally suited to projects like yours. How’s it going so far? Does that look like the future for the remaining classic 3-D titles still unreleased on 3-D Blu-ray?

Furmanek: Incredibly well. We’re halfway through the campaign and have raised 90% of our goal. That’s pretty remarkable considering just a few years ago, I couldn’t interest anyone in releasing our titles. You should see some of the rejection letters. My favorite is from Criterion where they casually dismissed 3-D Rarities as “not interesting.” Flicker Alley has done very well with the Blu-ray and that’s been our biggest seller!

It-Came-HSB_edited-1

WCP: What can you tell us about It Came from Outer Space? This is a Universal Home Video release, or is it being sub-licensed? And what does this suggest for a possible release of Revenge of the Creature as well?

Furmanek: I’m not at liberty to discuss those details. We did get the go ahead last week to announce that it was coming soon and there’s a preview page on our website. It Came from Outer Space – 3dfilmarchive

WCP: Like a lot of people, I first saw It Came from Outer Space at a college campus screening in the 1970s, via a 16mm anaglyphic non-theatrical print. Needless to say, this is going to look a whole lot better than that….

Furmanek: That’s an understatement!

WCP: Over on the Classic Horror Film Board, you’ve discussed how impressive the film’s stereophonic sound presentation was back in 1953, and how great it’s going to sound on Blu-ray. Could you tell us a little bit about how that sound was originally presented, how it’s different from past television and home video versions, and what it will be like on Blu-ray?

Furmanek:  In theaters, it was played back in sync with the picture on a separate full-coat 35mm magnetic dubber. Previous home video releases have used a modified and very compromised two-channel mix that was created in the 1990s. This is the first time people will experience at home what audiences first heard in 1953 and it’s going to knock you out. It was only the sixth feature released in stereo (First Year of Stereophonic Motion Pictures – 3dfilmarchive) and the sound is very directional. The score is amazing in discrete three-channel and the explosions will shake your house!

It-Came-(1)

WCP: General audiences today would probably find It Came from Outer Space rather campy, but I regard it as one of the very best ‘50s sci-fi films, unlike anything that came before and after it. From the 3-D standpoint, which few have been able to see properly presented in more than 60 years, what’s particularly interesting and innovative about its staging?

Furmanek: Both Greg and I feel this is one of the strongest 3-D features with terrific performances and a top-notch script that holds up amazingly well today. Jack Arnold had a great eye for stereoscopic compositions and his use of layering is quite impressive.

WCP: Have the 3-D elements been kept in good condition? Are there any special challenges for you? And will you be adjusting misaligned shots on either of these titles?

Furmanek: This was Universal’s first 3-D production and they were rushing to try and beat House of Wax into theaters. They didn’t succeed, and there were quite a few editing mistakes in the film (with reversed images) that we have fixed. Also, the vertical alignment was all over the map from shot to shot and we’ve fixed those issues as well. You’ll be seeing the film looking better now than it did in 1953.

WCP: Of the remaining classic 3-D still unreleased on Blu-ray 3-D, what’s your Holy Grail? Which ones would you most like to see restored, and are the studios involved cooperating? I guess it would be fair to say Wade Williams (of Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon) lies at one extreme; who’s been the most helpful?

Furmanek: Because of my 35-year friendship with Jerry Lewis, I would love to fully restore Money from Home. We came very close last year and even did a 15 minute 3-D demo which played to a very receptive audience at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Jerry was on board with the project but unfortunately, we encountered some extremely frustrating obstacles from one individual who had the power to kill it. But I don’t give up easily, so never say never! I can’t disclose specific titles at this time but I have to say that Richard Lorber, Frank Tarzi, Bret Wood and the entire team at Kino-Lorber have been fantastic in securing licenses for some amazing titles. Get ready for some reel stereoscopic gems coming to 3-D Blu-ray in the next few years!

It-Came-HS_edited-1

WCP: How can fans of classic 3-D best support your efforts? And would you care to hint at other titles we might see this year or during the first half of 2017?

Furmanek: We’re currently preparing two Silver Age titles for release, A*P*E (not to be confused with King Kong) and The Stewardesses. Honestly, the best way to get more vintage 3-D onto Blu-ray is to support the new releases. If a title doesn’t sell enough to at least break even, it will make it that much more difficult to pursue additional licenses. Even if it’s a movie you’ve never seen or a genre that doesn’t normally interest you, give it a shot. I believe that more often than not, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. The Golden Age 3-D titles are far better than their reputation.

You can read more about September Storm and the campaign to save it HERE.

Gog Featured

3-D Blu-ray Review: “Gog” (1954)

Gog Blu

I’m all agog for Gog!

Film restorations come in all shapes and sizes. The restoration of Gog (1954), an obscure science fiction thriller shot in Natural Vision 3-D might not sound like much, but in its own way it’s as monumental as the restorations/reconstructions of such unimpeachable classics as Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

This is, of course, not to say Gog is as on the same artistic plane or as culturally significant as those movies but, when you boil it down, all movies, regardless of merit, deserve to be preserved and made available in a form as close as possible to the filmmakers’ original intentions, what audiences experienced in the best venues when they were new.

Gog is an unusual, nearly unique relic from its era and of its genre. The ‘50s sci-fi boom was still feeling its way when Gog was made. As Bill Warren notes in his essential examination of the genre at this time, Keep Watching the Skies!, the first half of the decade was dominated by mix of relatively adult big studio films produced with “nervous ‘A’” budgets (The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide), and smaller but still ambitious, often independent productions (Rocketship X-M, Destination Moon), though there were from the beginning even cheaper exploitation pictures targeting less demanding audiences (Flight to Mars, Cat-Women of the Moon).

Generally though, most of these sci-fi films from the first half of the ’50 were movies made for grownups, and not almost exclusively children and teenagers. Gog, despite all its neat-o gadgetry, was a rare venture into true science fiction, not the science fantasy that makes up nearly all of what today is regarded as sci-fi cinema and TV. Producer George Pal got the ball rolling with Destination Moon (1950), a sincere attempt to realistically, plausibly dramatize what an expedition to the moon might actually be like, based on the science of the time. Though critically and commercially successful, it didn’t spur like-minded films.

Gog, along with the other two, vaguely related Ivan Tors-produced features that preceded it, The Magnetic Monster (1953) and Riders to the Stars (1954), were exceptions. Gog in particular serves as a prototype for the tiny handful of hard-science science fiction thrillers that followed, particularly John Sturges’s The Satan Bug (1965) and Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), movies in which real and theoretical science actually play an important role in their stories.

In color and 1.66:1 widescreen as well as 3-D, Gog had the misfortune of bad timing, released as it was after the vogue for 3-D had ended, and CinemaScope’s wide screen and stereophonic sound had won that decade’s great “format war.” Despite its impressive 3-D cinematography, Gog is understood to have played in 3-D in just a handful of movie theaters in Los Angeles; the rest of the country could see it only “flat,” in two dimensions. Later, it was sold to television but, even worse, these 16mm prints were in black-and-white. The “left eye” camera negative was mislaid and for decades the 3-D Gog was presumed lost forever.

Indefatigable 3-D enthusiast, researcher, and historian Bob Furmanek, founder of the 3-D Film Archive, located a faded Pathé color 35mm release print of the “left eye” in 2001, which was eventually paired with less problematic right eye film elements provided by Gog’s current owners, MGM, and exhibited at a 3-D festival in Los Angeles some years back. This led to a painstaking restoration of Gog culminating with its Kino Lober Blu-ray release, and the results are stupendous. Unless you were living in Southern California 62 years ago, this is your first opportunity to see Gog as originally intended. Though it has been shown flat on television, released as a (again flat) video-on-demand DVD, and even sold in an awful, faux 3-D DVD release from bootleg video dealers, this new Blu-ray not only presents Gog as it was meant to be seen, but the picture’s genuine merits are much more readily apparent.

Like The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars, Gog concerns the OSI, the “Office of Scientific Investigation.” In this case, OSI security agent David Sheppard (Richard Egan) is assigned to look into a series of baffling, gruesome murders and acts of sabotage being committed at an underground, multi-level laboratory beneath the New Mexico desert where a space station is being planned. Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling, Mrs. Ivan Tors) is another OSI already working undercover at the facility, and she and laboratory supervisor Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) give Sheppard the grand tour of the gadget-filled place.

Most of the gadgets, activated by unseen operators, are behind the deaths. Dr. Hubertus (Michael Fox), for instance, is frozen to death in his own deep-freeze chamber where he’s been conducting cryo-hibernation experiments, and grimly transformed into a veritable block of ice before tipping over and literally shattering like glass. Another scientist is nearly burned to a crisp by her own heat ray, which through a series of mirrors taps into the sun’s rays.

Eventually, the murders are traced to Gog and Magog, by 1954 standards realistic, non-anthromorphic robots remotely controlled by the lab’s central computer, NOVAC. (Was Magog unhappy with this inequitable billing arrangement, I wonder?)

Hungarian-born Ivan Tors (Iván Törzs) had a long film and television career in which he became particularly associated with fact-based science fiction, marine stories, animal-centric shows, or some combination of two or more of these elements. Among his credits: the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, Sea Hunt, Flipper, and Gentle Ben, and the movies Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and Around the World Under the Sea. His company also did the underwater second-unit work for the James Bond blockbuster Thunderball.

Tors’s sci-fi projects are usually regarded as sincere but tame, with an overemphasis on technology and verisimilitude at the expense of drama. That’s true to some extent with Gog, which at times resembles an elementary school trip to the Science Center. And yet, despite a sluggish second act, it more than compensates with several particularly gruesome opening murders and an action-packed climax.

The movie is cheap compared to big studio pictures, reportedly costing just $250,000 and shot over just 15 days at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. If those figures are accurate then Gog is a remarkable achievement as the money is all up there on the screen, and there’s much obvious effort to make every set and gadget visually interesting, even though the budget was too low to quite pull it off some of the time

What’s remarkable in watching Gog now is to see just how many of these then not-quite fanciful scientific concepts and innovations have since come to pass, and in many cases greatly miniaturized and improved upon far beyond what seem remotely possible at the time. Equally fascinating is how Gog, clunky though it may be, equally accurately anticipates the cinematic future. The laboratory is a ‘50s version of the uncannily similar underground labs featured in The Satan Bug and especially The Andromeda Strain, while Gog and Magog are like the grandparents of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the robot drones from Silent Running (1972), themselves distant cousins of R2-D2. Today we take automatic sliding doors for granted, but Gog may have been their first onscreen introduction in a science fiction film, more than ten years before they wowed audiences on Star Trek.

Gog 1-sheet

The restoration of Gog is almost miraculous yet exactly the kind of thing that should be commonplace instead of an anomaly. Essentially: MGM owns the films as part of its United Artists catalog but their holdings included only film elements for the “right eye” half of the 3-D version. When they licensed the title to Kino Lorber, the 3-D Film Archive offered their left-eye elements along with a bid to restore the picture to its original state. Various technical experts and companies became involved, with Greg Kintz given the arduous challenge of matching the faded left-eye print with the right-eye elements provided by MGM.

The presentation is basically flawless, with extremely impressive sharpness and bright, primary colors throughout, while the 1.66:1 framing is much more compositionally eye-pleasing.

The 3-D itself is on one hand less aggressive than, say, The Charge at Feather River or, more recently, Comin’ at Ya! (1981), the fun, neo-spaghetti Western in which no 3-D splurge is left unexploited. At the same time, Gog uses 3-D in consistently interesting, sometimes innovative ways, taking advantage of depth modern 3-D movies, strangely, often don’t do at all. In Gog, for instance, many of the sets are deliberately layered closer to and farther away from the camera, rooms and compartments sometimes separated by glass and doorways. Seen flat Gog always looked unusual but not in the good sense. In 3-D, however, the set design is often striking.

Further enhancing the Blu-ray is a superb Restoration Comparison that demonstrates just how challenging it was to bring Gog back to life; archival interviews from 2003 with director Herbert L. Strock and cinematographer Lothrop B. Worth, who sadly didn’t live to see this gorgeous restoration; and, best of all, an information-packed, typically humorous audio commentary by Tom Weaver, the go-to guy for such things. He apologizes up front for having less to say about Gog than his other commentary tracks for lack of existing archive documents but you’d never know that for its wealth of information. He’s joined by Bob Furmanek and David Schecter to discuss the film’s restoration and score, respectively.

As other reviewers have pointed out, rights holders of other classic 3-D titles – Are you listening Wade Williams? – really need to seek out the 3-D Archive and its team of talented and devoted artisans and scholars in providing them access, through sub-licensing or other participation, to preserve these movies before it’s too late. Gog may not be Intolerance, Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, Vertigo or Spartacus, but it’s an underrated, ambitious little film more than worth the effort to save it, and with this and other 3-D Blu-ray titles in which the 3-D Archive has been associated with, have more than demonstrated the stunning results with which they are capable.

Gog-marquee

Mask Featured

Blu-ray 3-D Review: “The Mask” (1961)

Mask 1

The Mask (1961), reportedly Canada’s first horror movie (and first 3-D feature, and first feature distributed by a major studio), is a real oddity, professionally-made and reasonably polished for a relatively low-budget movie, but otherwise quite different in look and tone from Hollywood product. Rather like the made-in-Pennsylvania The Blob (1958) and 4-D Man (1959), it’s ambitious and a bit more intelligent than most exploitation films of its era.

And it’s certainly different in one respect: nearly 15 minutes of its 83-minute running time are in 3-D. The 1952-1955 craze for 3-D was pretty much kaput by 1961; distributed by Warner Bros., it and the now totally obscure September Storm (1960), from 20th Century-Fox, were the only major 3-D features released between 1955 and 1966.

One of the nagging myths about classic 3-D movies, completely untrue, was those red-blue glasses moviegoers supposedly had to wear, and the inferior, headache-inducing image they created. In fact nearly all ‘50s 3-D movies employed “polarized” viewers resembling sunglasses. The Mask was a rare exception; originally, for its 3-D sequences, “Magic Mystic Masks,” i.e. red-blue anaglyphic lenses in cardboard frames, created the effect. Unlike nearly all ‘50s 3-D features, which required two separate but synchronized 35mm prints (one for the left eye, one for the right), The Mask could be exhibited in any theater as it used a single print, a major convenience.

Ingeniously though, the folks at 3-D Film Archive, which has done more for classic 3-D on video than all the major labels combined, have gone back to the original left and right 35mm elements to enable picture perfect Blu-ray 3-D. Instead of the slightly blurred red-blue image theatrical audiences saw back in 1961 (and on multiple reissues thereafter), viewers can now enjoy the film’s surreal 3-D scenes in razor sharp, perfectly aligned black-and-white 3-D.

Further, they’ve restored the rarely heard Electro-Magic (surround) sound, remixed for 5.1 surround,  enhancing the immersive experience even more.

Mask 3

The plot of The Mask is almost incidental, but moderately effective on its own terms. A deeply troubled patient (Martin Lavut) of psychiatrist Dr. Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens) commits suicide, but not before mailing the skeptical shrink an ancient tribal mask at the root of the patient’s psychosis. Inexorably compelled to “put the mask on NOW” (so booms Barnes’s unrecognizable off-screen voice, cueing moviegoers to do likewise), Barnes experiences wildly surreal, proto-psychedelic visions. These 3-D “dream sequences” were supervised by Slavoljub “Slavko” Vorkapić, a Serbian experimental filmmaker who in Hollywood created dynamic montage sequences, usually without credit, for such films as San Francisco (1936), The Good Earth (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) while directing short films of his own. The sequences, while tame by today’s standards, would be extraordinarily silly were they not also so hypnotically effective.

The director of credit was Montréal-born Julian Roffman, who had a minor career as a producer-director. Several of his later films in that former capacity, The Pyx (1973) and The Glove (1979), are available on DVD. Those movies are unusual, too, but generally unmemorable. Beetle browed character actor Stevens is the only actor in the cast viewers are likely to recognize. Prolific but mainly on television, Stevens did have memorable roles in a handful of other pictures, notably Exodus (1960), Patton (1970), and the mostly poor Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). He died in 1986.

The Mask was picked up by Warner Bros. soon after its Canadian premiere and did well enough that New Line Cinema reissued it several times beginning in 1970, sometimes under the title Eyes of Hell. Because it had been intended from the start to be exhibited in anaglyphic format, it didn’t look too terrible when it was broadcast on commercial television in the early 1980s, during the second big wave of 3-D productions and reissues. A subsequent VHS (and, I think, laserdisc) release of The Mask also looked about as good as 3-D could get in those formats. Certainly it was infinitely superior to atrocious 3-D VHS versions of Creature from the Black Lagoon and most other releases of the period.

Mask 2

Nonetheless, the 3-D Film Archive’s 3-D Blu-ray, distributed by Kino, is a revelation. It quite literally far surpasses even the film’s original 1961 bookings by way of its 3-D Blu-ray conversion and looks and sounds great throughout. Though only about one-fifth of the film is in 3-D, the entire show (in 1.66:1 widescreen) has been encoded that way, allowing the viewer to switch back-and-forth between the 2-D “plot” scenes without glasses and the dream sequences with 3-D viewers –  without the fuss of needing to constantly adjust one’s monitor.

As an option, the 3-D sequences are also presented in their original anaglyphic format (red-blue 3-D glasses not included), supplemented by useful anaglyphic calibration guide.

Also included is an excellent audio commentary with film historian Jason Pichonsky; “Julian Roffman: The Man Behind the Mask,” a very fine 20-minute featurette; four trailers and TV spots; and, best of all, several illustrative (if 2-D) short films by Vorkapić. As a bonus there’s a seven-minute short film by James Hall and Jason Jameson, also in Blu-ray 3-D, One Night in Hell (2014), presented with Dolby ATMOS audio and featuring music by Brian May. Aesthetically it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the presentation, but on its own terms it’s a really fantastic little short.

Once again Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz (among others associated with 3-D Film Archive) have hit it out of the park. Though not a great film by any means, The Mask offers many startlingly good 3-D effects and it’s a rather fascinating, unique film in several respects. Keep ‘em coming, guys!

3-D featured

Blu-ray Review: “3-D Rarities”

3-D cover art

I currently have about 7,200 titles in my DVD/HD DVD/Blu-ray library, but less than an hour into the two-and-a-half-hours-long 3-D Rarities, I knew I was looking at one of my Top Ten favorite titles. Of immense historical, technological, and cultural interest, and supremely entertaining besides, 3-D Rarities is one of the year’s top releases – heck, it’s one of the format’s best releases! – and a bona fide must-see.

A grab bag of material stretching from 1922 into the early 1960s, 3-D Rarities gathers together an enormous amount of all sorts of things even hard-core 3-D enthusiasts have never seen presented so perfectly, when at all. The digital 3-D conversions are uniformly excellent and, truly, there’s something for everyone: historical footage of New York City and Washington D.C. in the 1920s; an amazing promotional film for the Pennsylvania Railroad line; trailers for ‘50s 3-D films (in 3-D); dazzlingly 3-D shorts directed by the National Film Board of Canada’s resident genius Norman McLaren; a completely unexpected anti-nuclear documentary made during the height of the Cold War (and quickly suppressed, unsurprisingly); an eye-popping Casper cartoon, and lots, lots more.

This isn’t just for 3-D enthusiasts. Watching Thrills for You, the Pennsylvania Railroad documentary, I couldn’t help thinking how train buffs would go absolutely nuts over all the footage showing the construction of a big steam locomotive engine, and footage taken inside real, en route passenger trains that allow the viewer to vicariously experience that long-lost form of travel, remembered primarily in the distorted form of ‘30s and ‘40s movies set aboard trains but always filmed on soundstage sets.

3-D Rarities also includes gobs of extra features, including excerpts from 3-D comic books, View-Master reels, and even 3-D stills from the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)!

Rare 4

A marvelous 24-page, full-color booklet guides the viewer through this unique collection. Following brief introductory essays by comedian Trustin Howard (who, as “Slick Slavin,” headlines Stardust in Your Eyes) and Leonard Maltin, the two-part program (Act 1: The Dawn of Stereoscopic Cinematography; Act 2: Hollywood Enters the Third-Dimension) is explained in short but illuminating essays by experts Jack Theakston, Hillary Hess, Donald McWilliams, Ted Okuda, Julian Antos, Thad Komorowski, Mary Ann Sell, and disc co-producer Bob Furmanek.

The essays provide valuable information about the 3-D processes used, how and when they were originally exhibited, quotes from contemporary reviews, and information about how they were rescued and restored. In many cases, the lone surviving negative or print was literally on its way to the junk yard and very nearly lost forever.

Many of the earliest shorts were originally exhibited in anaglyphic format (using red-green glasses) but for 3-D Rarities impressively have been reformat to “polarized” format, with the image in crystal-clear black-and-white with minimal ghosting effects.

This reviewer found everything totally fascinating, with only New Dimension, essentially a long if 3-D commercial for Chrysler’s 1940 Plymouths, wearing out its welcome before it was over. But old car enthusiasts, like train buffs watching Thrills for You, will delight in this stop-motion film showing a single car being put together, part-by-part. I had assumed this was done with a detailed scale-model, but Theakston reports that, incredibly, all of the stop-motion was done full-scale, presumably with (for the most part) real car parts.

Rare 3

Scottish expatriate McLaren’s ingenious shorts for the National Film Board of Canada got the deluxe treatment some years back via a superb DVD set, but the quartet of dimensional films presented here, Now Is the Time, Around and Around, O Canada, and Twirlgig are truly magical, bearing McLaren’s (and the NFB’s) unmistakable stamp while literally adding a new dimension to the NFB’s filmmaking innovations.

Finally, there’s a wealth of home movie-type scenes filmed to promote Bolex’s Stereo film gear, which awkwardly halved the 16mm gauge’s frame size, making it taller than wide, but the 3-D is nonetheless impressive.

Part 2 begins with an amusing short film that originally preceded Bwana Devil (1952), the picture that mainstreamed the ‘50s 3-D craze. Starring Lloyd Nolan, “Miss Third Dimension” and, in puppet form, Beany & Cecil, it’s a charming artifact of the period. 3-D Trailers for Oh-how-I wish-they-were-out-already ‘50s titles It Came from Outer Space, Hannah Lee, The Maze, and Miss Sadie Thompson provide, at least, tantalizing previews.

Rare 2

The first and only 3-D newsreels documents the unexpectedly brief Rocky Marciano vs. Jersey Joe Walcott fight, a controversial rematch that never went beyond the first round. This proved a bonus for 3-D fans, as the two-reeler is padded with loads of other good stuff, including Marciano reaching out and “punching” the movie audience.

The aforementioned Stardust in Your Eyes is a real oddity, clearly slapped together in haste by director Phil Tucker as a prologue short to his magnum opus, the infamous Robot Monster. Tucker’s notorious turkey actually has an infectious, child-fueled dream-like logic and apparently pretty impressive in good 3-D, but the short never takes advantage of the format, with comedian-impressionist Slavin doing his entire act in front of what looks like the kind of padding movers wrap furniture in.

Doom Town, on the other hand, is a revelation. Made independently by producer Lee Savin and written and directed by Gerald Schnitzer, it provides a rare, sharp contrast to the gung-ho propagandizing of most Hollywood films as well as the Cinerama travelogues. After a few bookings it was abruptly pulled and disappeared for decades, until the 3-D Film Archive discovered the original negatives, about to be junked, in 1985. There’s was a historic find and Doom Town all by itself is, as they say, worth the price of admission.

Another major restoration is the little-seen The Adventures of Sam Space, done in the stop-motion/replacement animation style of George Pal’s Puppetoons. Bursting with imaginative production design and effects, it was completed just as the fad for 3-D died and, until now, has never been seen in its correct widescreen aspect ratio.

I’ll Sell My Shirt is a cheap, typical burlesque/mild striptease-type short with the added benefit of 3-D. Far superior is the Paramount-distributed Casper cartoon, Boo Moon, one of the best-looking 3-D cartoons ever. After seeing the disappointing Bugs Bunny short Lumberjack Rabbit several times in 3-D, Boo Moon is a real surprise. It really uses the format spectacularly well.

The shorts all look great, especially considering the considerable restoration effort that went into many of them. All films are presented in their correct original aspect ratios and the 3-D is perfect nearly all the time. The disc is region-free, too.

Rare 5

Extras include a few minutes of 3-D footage aspiring director Francis Ford Coppola shot for The Bellboys and the Playgirls, an otherwise 2-D nudie-cutie made in West Germany. Also included are amazing 3-D still galleries from the Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame and the 1939 World’s Fair; Adventures of Sam Sawyer, a View-Master release, along with excerpts from several 3-D comic books, all transferred to polarized format from their original anaglyphic.

This is an outstanding collection, with delightful surprises around every corner, gorgeously realized on all levels. Kudos to the 3-D Film Archive and Flicker Alley for one of the best releases of this or any year.

STTMP featured

Return to Tomorrow: Making “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979)

Even for those whose universe doesn’t revolve around Star Trek, the problem-plagued production history, release and reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is unique in the annals of Hollywood, and in more ways than one.

For starters, it was the first-ever big-budget movie adaptation of a (perceived) failed television series, one unceremoniously cancelled nearly a decade earlier to boot. The project then went through an agonizingly long process of developmental hell lasting several years. Initially the revival was planned as a medium budget theatrical feature before the decision was made to reworked it as a weekly television series, the flagship for a then-revolutionary, studio-backed fourth television network. Plans shifted again in the wake of Star Wars (1977), and Star Trek became a Motion Picture once more, this time with no expense spared. That process took more than three years, with teleplays written and actors cast for the never-produced TV version, and even sets and miniature models constructed that had to be junked or extensively retooled when Star Trek became a big-budget movie.

STTMP

A deal between Paramount and theater owners fixed the movie’s release date: December 7, 1979. That meant the picture had to start filming with a shooting script only two-thirds done. Numerous unanticipated technical problems and deliberations over the script pushed it further and further behind schedule.

The other, even bigger shoe yet to drop concerned Star Trek’s special visual effects. Paramount contracted with the firm Abel & Associates, a company with zero feature film experience but famous for their visually dazzling television commercials. Robert Abel’s firm ordered state-of-the-art equipment, created concept art, built models, etc., but $6 million and 12 months later they had nothing to show for it, with zero usable footage.

Effects veteran Douglas Trumbull reluctantly assumed command, while a second firm, John Dykstra’s Apogee Co., was contracted to handle the overload. Together, they had just nine months to complete two years’ worth of visual effects work.

All of this – the years of script development, money wasted on sets, models, and talent for the never-produced TV series, delays with the live action unit, the millions wasted by Abel & Associates, and the unimaginable overtime and manpower required to finish the special effects in order to meet the film’s release date, pushed the Star Trek’s final cost to $42 million (though possibly even higher than that), making it one of the four or five most expensive movies ever made up to that point. The race to the finish line was so close there was no time to preview the film, no time to fine-tune the editing, no time even to strike premium 70mm prints for the biggest movie houses; Paramount wasn’t even sure whether prints would reach theaters in time.

Return to Tomorrow

This fascinating, one-of-a-kind tale is exhaustively (and, boy, do I mean exhaustively) chronicled in Preston Neal Jones’s Return to Tomorrow: The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, from Creature Features Publishing. The book itself has an equally serpentine history dating back to 1979. Jones interviewed the entire principal cast, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, director Robert Wise, and virtually all of the other key production personnel, some 60 interview subjects in all. The work was originally slated as a cover story for a proposed double-length issue of Cinefantastique, at the time the Rolls Royce science fiction-fantasy-horror cinema magazines, one rich in unusually scholarly articles and reviews about old and new genre films.

For various reasons Jones’s piece was never published. The book reworks the material into a massive, 672-page oral history. On the plus side, it’s fascinating to read 35-year-old interviews conducted mostly around the time the movie was just going into release, December-January 1979/80. All of the trials and tribulations of the making of the film are there, and many of the interviewees are extraordinarily frank in their displeasure and frustration, though most are upbeat and look back fondly on what proved to be an extraordinarily demanding experience. And because of Jones’s obsession to even the tiniest details, Return to Tomorrow paints a vivid portrait of the long and arduous process of studio movie making as few film books have.

But it’s also a bit like poring over several dusty cardboard boxes of raw research material. The most obvious problem with the book is its endless repetition of nearly identical remarks. Even Lukas Kendall, in his brief Afterword, jokes about this: “Everybody loved Robert Wise.” Indeed they did. It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that at least 50 of the 60 participants say something along the lines of, “Were it not for Robert Wise’s experience and expertise in all facets of filmmaking, and especially his eternally calm demeanor, the whole project would have fallen apart.” Moreover, probably half of the 50 say basically the same thing multiple times – three of four times in some cases. Actor DeForest Kelley, “Bones” McCoy, remarks about several lines of dialogue shot but cut from the film, again and again, throughout the book. Someone on the special effects team will discuss the inception and creation of a particular visual effect, and then another member of the same team will talk about the same effect in essentially the way, all over again, sometimes over many pages.

The making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an inherently engrossing, even highly suspenseful tale. Disaster strikes often. Shit! How are they ever going to be able to overcome that obstacle? Will the movie be finished in time? But reading Return to Tomorrow is like watching the Indy 500 in extreme slow motion, with the racecars crawling down the track at 20 mph.

The book has absolutely no sense of pacing, of telling a story. The red-letter day when the famously unfazable Robert Wise finally blew his stack after screening Abel’s pitifully inadequate smattering of completed effects shots receives little build-up, and when that turning point in the production finally happens, it’s unceremoniously tossed in the literary laundry basket, jumbled in with the rest of the dirty clothes, given the same weight, maybe even less, that the prolix coverage of the creation of warp coil lighting effects.

Despite little bits of bridging material here and there, Return to Tomorrow rarely places the production of Star Trek into context. For instance, there’s virtually no mention at all of Paramount’s aims and long-term strategies with Star Trek relative to the company at large, or its place in the mad scramble by Hollywood to duplicate Star Wars’s success during 1978-84. No other Paramount movies concurrently in development or production are mentioned, and there’s practically zero discussion about the state of the film industry at large in the late 1970s, all of which would have helped to put Star Trek into better contextual focus.

Though primarily an oral history, the author’s own voice is largely absent; there’s no 35-year hindsight, reflection, and analysis. Though it would have been a hard sell to non-Star Trek fans, the work is really geared for the hard-core buffs only, a shame. In the hands of a strong editor and with a lot of pruning (like, 75%), the book might have lost very little of note while transforming itself into a truly insightful, exciting work that, in addition to shedding lots of new light on this volatile production, could have appealed to a much wider audience, and have been a remarkable case study of studio production, art vs. commerce, right at an industry crossroads.

What Return to Tomorrow underemphasizes, when mentioned at all, is how remarkable an achievement The Motion Picture is beyond having made its release date by the skin of its teeth. Though flawed in many respects, the first movie Star Trek accomplished a great deal largely unrecognized at the time, and in retrospect the movie plays a lot better than it did for many when it was new. Indeed, there’s really been nothing quite like it, before or since.

First, the movie was burdened with having to reinvent the wheel through a maze of contradictions. It had to look enough like the old TV show to be recognizably Star Trek and to please its hard-core fans, the perceived core of the movie version’s box-office. And yet to avoid being laughed off the screen it couldn’t look too much like the old show – tastes and technology had changed more in those intervening ten years than perhaps any decade of the 20th century – and it was imperative that a movie Star Trek equally appeal to mainstream moviegoers barely aware of the old show’s existence.

Similarly, the script needed to conform to the spirit of Star Trek and include those elements and characters deemed essential to its appeal, reintroducing iconography intimately familiar to some moviegoers, brand-new and unfamiliar to others. It was a project with a singularly proprietary executive producer and co-writer (Roddenberry) clinging to certain, not always good concepts while notably ineffective as a producer in other ways. There were leading actors muscling in on the script, largely to protect their own interests and their vision of characters they had been inhabiting on and off for more than a dozen years.

Further, the show’s hardcore fans, the Trekkies (or Trekkers or, as they seemed to call themselves then, as the book suggests, Trekkians), after waiting song long for their beloved series’ revival, had their own ideas about what a Star Trek movie should be like, meaning a lot of them would be impossible to entirely please. That Star Trek: The Motion Picture manages to get it right at least 85% of the time is nothing short of miraculous. One need only look at movie adaptations of other popular TV shows (Sgt. Bilko, Lost in Space, The Avengers, etc.) to see just how easy it is to be so profoundly wrong-headed.

The other remarkable thing about Star Trek: The Motion Picture is better appreciated in this age where high-concept, short attention span completely dominates, and adult, intelligent, and methodically paced big-budget movies are practically non-existent. The biggest complaints levied against the movie by interviewees in Jones’s book are the pacing (too slow) and that it needed less emphasis on the special effects and more on character interaction, particularly among the original cast. That’s true to a point, and clearly this was addressed in the sequels beginning with Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), in which the characters’ relationships with one another was the whole point.

What’s interesting though about Star Trek: The Motion Picture is how utterly different it is from all of the other Star Trek movies, even those featuring the original cast. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it’s closer in spirit to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than Wrath of Khan. While Star Trek explores ideas already done to death in literary science fiction, they were relatively new in science fiction cinema, and so far out as to completely baffle some critics. (Amusingly and infuriatingly, my old nemesis Richard Schickel predictably gave the film a highly negative review, partly because he couldn’t figure out why, in his mind, the Klingons piloting the V’Ger ship didn’t show themselves at the climax. Wait – what?)

Further, while the movie maybe could’ve used a bit more humor (more original series producer Gene L. Coon’s realm than Roddenberry’s, who preferred his Star Trek deeply serious; even 2001 has its share of deliberate laughs), it more than satisfies most of the basic requirements of a bona fide Star Trek movie. For instance, one of the original series’ tenets, an optimistic, tolerant, and culturally and racially diversified vision of the future, is there, in spades, throughout the film. So is one of the central themes of the TV show: Captain Kirk’s Horatio Hornblower-like sense of duty to his ship and his uniquely talented instinct as a leader in times of crisis, which sometimes cause personal and professional conflicts with his junior officers.

It’s a movie that requires its audience to think about problems and abstract ideas. In going along for the ride, the audience is required to share in the mystery while exploring these “strange new worlds.” Not everything is made plain. In this way The Motion Picture is more like a link between Kubrick’s 2001 and Peter Hyams’ way-too-explicit sequel, 2010 (1984).

Meanwhile, the film does much to expand upon preexisting concepts. One interesting point that the book reveals is that Wise was very insistent that the immense size of the USS Enterprise be emphasized, which is why there are all those extras in that big recreation room set, and why in dry-dock and elsewhere are there always seen drone-like workers in space gear floating around, fixing things: to lend a sense of scale. Many viewers complained that the introduction of the Enterprise goes on too long, but for this writer then as now it’s practically perfect. Wise and his encouraged effects team were painting on a big canvas, for wide Panavision screens. On small TV monitors yes, this sequence seems to go on forever, but in big movie theaters and now, on Blu-ray, even on obviously smaller 100-inch projection systems, its effectiveness still impresses.

In any case, Return to Tomorrow is the kind of book that’s extremely interesting on many levels, but it’s like panning for gold and sifting through tons of silt over many hours to find maybe $50 worth of nuggets. There’s a mountain of great raw material here but, Lordy, it could have been presented far more effectively.

Medusa Featured

What I’ve Been Watching Lately: Wilder, Truffaut, Forsyth, Peckinpah

Welcome to a new monthly column here at World Cinema Paradise called “What I’ve Been Watching Lately.” I’ve been loathe to repurpose my DVD and Blu-ray reviews from my writing day-job over at DVD Talk, so you’ll see none of those reviews here. Instead, the focus is going to be the other, more niche titles, including many from outside the confines of region A Blu and region 1 DVD.

And so, in the immortal words of Jackie Gleason, away we go…

Ballad in Blue

Ballad in Blue (1964)

This intriguing little British film, directed by actor Paul Henreid, stars R&B icon Ray Charles, playing himself. In London as part of a European tour, Charles visits a special school for blind children where he meets David (Piers Bishop), a young lad who lost his sight six months earlier. He’s trying hard to adjust, but his overprotective single mother, Peggy (Mary Peach, Scrooge), treats him like a baby. Charles, sympathetic to the boy’s plight, gently intervenes, hiring her alcoholic pianist boyfriend, Steve (Prime Suspect’s Tom Bell), as a new arranger. Though not quite as kinetic as Richard Lester’s contemporaneous Beatles movies, Ballad in Blue nonetheless has much outstanding footage of Ray Charles at the peak of his game, and he’s not a bad actor, either. Some find his relationship with the (white) kid cloying, but I found it straightforward and emotionally honest, plus the movie ends on an unexpectedly but intelligently ambiguous note. Network’s Blu-ray of this black-and-white production looks great though, curiously, it’s presented in 1.37:1 format. The tight framing of the musical numbers especially suggests it just may have been intended to be seen that way, though 1.66:1 widescreen would seem more likely. Regardless, there’s precious little extra headroom and visually works well enough in this format. (Network, Region B)

High Road to China

High Road to China (1983)

A Hong-Kong-U.S.-Yugoslavian co-production, High Road to China was dismissed as a mediocre Raiders of the Lost Ark imitator, which this most definitely is not. Sure, the reason it probably got made had something to due with Raiders’ success, to say nothing of the fact that Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck came within a hare’s breath of playing Indiana Jones. But the movie is nothing more or less than an old-fashioned historical adventure that one easily imagines would have looked exactly the same if the Spielberg-Lucas collaboration had never existed. The plot has a society heiress (Bess Armstrong) reluctantly hiring a hard-drinking World War I flying ace (Selleck) to search for her father, last seen somewhere between Afghanistan and China. Stylistically, nothing about the film resembles Raiders: it’s more methodically paced, has a lushly romantic John Barry score closer to his Somewhere in Time music than John Williams’s Indiana Jones themes, and better characters. There’s a nice scene, for instance, where the audience learns that the pilot’s drinking is the result of having to shoot down pilots barely out of britches at the end of the war, young kids whose frightened faces he can’t forget. And the cast is good: Robert Morley, Brian Blessed, Jack Weston (nicely underplaying his comedy relief part), and a nearly unrecognizable Wilford Brimley. On Blu-ray in Region B from Mediumrare, in a clean, satisfying widescreen transfer.

Fedora

Fedora (1978)

Billy Wilder’s penultimate film nearly bookends an earlier triumph, Sunset Blvd. (1950), even to the point of starring William Holden and featuring some of that same wonderfully cynical narration. Adapted from a novella by actor-turned-writer Tom Tryon, the plot has Holden playing a desperate, aging producer trying to coax a Garbo-esque reclusive screen icon (Marthe Keller) to agree to star in his proposed independent production. He tracks her down to an island villa near Corfu but her handlers – a Polish countess (Hildegard Knef), personal assistant (Frances Sternhagen), and physician (José Ferrer) – won’t let him anywhere near her. Reviled at the time of its release, Fedora’s admirers has been growing steadily through the years, though they’ve tended to go overboard in the other direction. It’s a bitter, funny movie on several levels with many fine moments, but casting problems fatally wound its potential. The movie has a lot of signature Tryon surprises that don’t work. Wilder originally wanted Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway for the roles played by Knef and Keller; the movie plays a lot better imagining them in those parts. (Meryl Streep would also have worked quite well in the latter role.) Wilder realized too late that the Swiss-born Keller and the German-born Knef neither sounded nor looked alike, critical to the movie’s plot, nor could they easily be understood, so he had both performances dubbed by a third actress, Inga Bunsch, for the English-language release. (Keller dubbed both voices for the French version while Knef did double-duty on the German; it would be interesting to see if those play any better.) The results, sadly, are almost ruinous, though as he often did, Holden’s as-usual terrific performance nearly holds everything together, albeit like sticky, past-its-expiration-date glue. Olive Films’ Region A Blu-ray, using a high-def master restored in Germany, looks great.

Truffaut Collection

Shoot the Pianist (1960) / The Soft Skin (1964)

I’ve been slowly making my way through Artificial Eye’s The François Truffaut Collection, an incredible bargain featuring eight great and/or overlooked films, all stunning in high-def. Most I’ve not seen in 30-plus years. In the case of Shoot the Pianist (better known, at least to me, as Shoot the Piano Player), the first time I saw that it was panned-and-scanned with burned-in English subtitles, cut off on both edges of the frame, and using white font, often against white wall backgrounds. I think I caught maybe 40% of the dialogue. Singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour stars as withdrawn Parisian dive bar pianist Charlie Kohler, who becomes an accessory to his criminal brothers’ activities. Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress who loves Charlie and aware of his past identity as an acclaimed classical pianist, likewise becomes tangled in their web of crime. In The Soft Skin, Jean Desailly stars as Pierre Lachenay, a famous writer and literary editor popular on the European lecture circuit. On a trip to Portugal he meets and falls in love with a beautiful airline hostess named Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). As he’s married with a young daughter, Pierre struggles to keep his relationship secret and, despite his best efforts, Nicole becomes impatient and hurt living as the “other woman.” Like Shoot the Pianist, The Soft Skin was not a success when it was new – the theme of this month’s column, apparently – and the latter was even reportedly booed at Cannes. One suspects contemporary critics found its story too simple and clichéd. I, however, thought it riveting and highly suspenseful. Reportedly a lot of it was based on Truffaut’s own infidelities, including with Dorléac, and it’s adult, intimate, and immediate as few films today are. Region B.

Killer Elite

The Killer Elite (1975)

Sam Peckinpah’s 1970s filmography runs hot and cold with this writer. I find Junior Bonner, with Steve McQueen, unjustly unheralded but The Getaway, also with McQueen, repulsive and boring. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is better than its reputation, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid far worse than its. Cross of Iron is simply a mess with little of interest, Convoy is empty-headed but entertaining. Amidst all this is The Killer Elite, with James Caan as a corporate security man charged with jobs the CIA won’t touch, much less acknowledge. Partner Robert Duvall goes rogue, shooting Caan in the elbow and knee in a deliberately career-ending hit, but Caan is determined to recover enough so that he might track down this ex-partner who betrayed him. The movie’s first third, clinically dramatizing the shooting, various operations, and Caan’s grueling attempts at recovery are riveting, but the picture slowly loses its way and, by the anachronistic blend of samurai and chopsocky for its climax, is merely ridiculous if entertaining escapism. (Not helping matters is Arthur Hill, who spent virtually his entire career playing good guys in positions of authority who turns out to be the surprise bad guy. It stopped working when audiences picked up that Hill always played the surprise bad guy.) Twilight Time’s region A Blu-ray, however, looks stupendous, and includes a rare treat: Peckinpah’s Noon Wine, a featurette-length adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, shot on one-inch (analog) video for television in 1966.

Gregory's 2 Girls

Gregory’s 2 Girls (1999)

After enjoying Second Sight’s excellent Region B Blu-ray of an old favorite, Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981), I picked up the British DVD of Forsyth’s barely-released sequel, filmed eighteen years later. Now pushing 40, Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair, still delightful) remains single and, effectively, is still in high school, now a politically conscious English teacher. His mantra, “Don’t spectate, participate” prompts 16-year-old soccer player Frances (Carly McKinnon), for whom Gregory has had sexual fantasies, to confide in him. She’s convinced an old schoolmate of Gregory’s, millionaire electronics manufacturer Fraser Rowan (Dougray Scott), may be smuggling torture equipment to Third World governments. Fans that dearly loved Gregory’s Girl mostly hated the film. Some, undoubtedly, were put off by the film’s darker political themes, the idea that idyllic, ordinary suburban Scotland might secretly be contributing to tools of war. Others found Gregory’s attraction to Frances, one teetering precariously close to pedophilia, distasteful. But if Gregory’s 2 Girls lacks the original film’s sweet innocence, it also reflects a maturation on the part of writer-director Forsyth. It may not be as disarmingly entertaining as Gregory’s Girl, but it’s a very funny, intriguing film in its own right, making Forsyth’s fall from grace all the more unfathomable. It remains his last film to date. Region 2 (PAL).

Catacombs

Catacombs (1965)

The sixties were a kind of Golden Age for British thrillers. Merton Park Studios was cranking out as many as a dozen Edgar Wallace thrillers for Anglo-Amalgamated, while Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster penned some marvelous thrillers for Hammer. Sangster joked that all of his scripts were simple variations of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s seminal French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), but Sangster’s were often very clever and admirably original. Conversely, the very entertaining and quite spooky Catacombs, directed by Gordon Hessler and adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from Jay Bennett’s novel, is a blatant gender-reversal of Les Diaboliques almost scene-for-scene. However, it’s so well done this reviewer didn’t connect the obvious dots until the film was almost over. A big part of its success is the performances: Gary Merrill as the henpecked husband, Georgina Cookson as the shrewish, possessively jealous wife, and a young Jane Merrow as Merrill’s step-daughter, caught between them. Like Clouzot’s film Catacombs is very nearly a horror film, with several impressively tense, genuinely creepy moments. How is it I had never even heard of this picture before, even under its U.S. release title, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die? Network’s Region 2 (PAL) release offers a good, widescreen transfer.

Medusa Touch

The Medusa Touch (1978)

Another Network title I had never seen before was this wild ride of movie; I knew the title and that Richard Burton starred but nothing else, really the best way to experience it. How could I have known that it’s a religious horror-disaster-science fiction-end of the world-political thriller, all in one? Co-produced by legendary editor Anne V. Coates, directed by Jack Gold, and adapted from Peter Van Greenaway’s novel, the film stars Burton as Morlar, a firebrand novelist obsessed with the idea that he’s been cursed with the ability to consciously and unconsciously cause people’s deaths. After he’s murdered (or is he?) a French police inspector, Brunel, (the great Lino Ventura) questions Morlar’s psychiatrist, Zonfeld (Lee Remick), who dismisses Morlar’s claims, though Brunel isn’t quite so sure. The all-star British cast includes Harry Andrews, Jeremy Brett, Michael Hordern, Gordon Jackson, Derek Jacobi, and many others. The region B Blu-ray looks fantastic and helps showcase the film’s impressive sets and one spectacularly realized special effects sequence done with miniatures. Kim Newman’s enlightening liner notes on this one-of-a-kind film provide essential background on novelist Greenaway. A real find.

Lunch featured 1

His Lunches with Orson – Henry Jaglom Remembers Orson Welles

Lunch

Alternately sad, hilarious, outrageous, and revelatory, My Lunches with Orson is the must-read Peter Biskind-edited book of transcribed tape-recorded conversations between the great director-writer-actor Orson Welles and his friend, confidant, disciple, and go-between in those terrible last years, fellow director-writer-actor Henry Jaglom.

By the late 1970s through the mid ‘80s, Welles’s meteoric rise in the 1930s and early forties was a distant memory. His last completed work, F for Fake (1974), was barely released, and though today it’s recognized as a daring, innovative work, and the time it was mostly met with hostile reviews. Pauline Kael’s vicious essay, Raising Kane, since discredited, tried to deny Welles his unimpeachable masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), suggesting co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz was the true auteur behind that film. Later, Charles Higham, infamous for his disreputable, trashy “biographies” (e.g., Errol Flynn: The Untold Story; Higham was also notorious among his peers as a thief, pilfering one-of-a-kind archive material) further damaged Welles’s career with books theorizing that Welles pathologically abandoned projects before they were finished.

But Welles was a peerless cinema artist responsible for the movie widely regarded as the greatest ever made, to say nothing of nearly a dozen or so other masterpieces and near-masterpieces. And yet no one, even the most successful actors and directors in Hollywood, people who regarded Welles as a personal friend and a major influence on their own careers, would help him when he needed them most. Instead, during this time, Welles was forced to rely on income as a pitchman (for Paul Masson wines, etc.) and intermittent work doing TV guest spots and movie cameos.

The exception was Henry Jaglom, who directed Welles in Jaglom’s first movie, A Safe Place (1971), as well as Welles’s last film appearance, in Jaglom’s charming Someone to Love (1985). Jaglom called in every favor, asking friends and colleagues from his BBS/New Hollywood days and beyond, contacts he had made through the distributions and film festival screenings of his own films (Sitting Ducks, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, etc.) to locate financing for Welles’s latest projects: The Big Brass Ring about a gay presidential candidate in 1940s America; The Cradle Will Rock, an autobiographical project about the Federal Theatre Project’s 1937 musical of the same name; a version of King Lear to have starred Welles; and The Dreamers, based on two stories by Isak Dinesen that was to have starred Welles’s partner, Oja Kodar.

Lunch 2

The dismally unsuccessful efforts to get any of these projects made has long been the source of much speculation and confusion, but My Lunches with Orson traces the unraveling of these projects in heartbreaking detail and clarity.

And yet My Lunches with Orson isn’t merely depressing. The great raconteur Welles was on myriad talk shows of the period is also on display, but here, privately dining with Jaglom at Ma Maison, he speaks with a candor that, on almost every page, is outrageously funny and revealing. For instance, there’s a long discussion where Jaglom passes along an offer for Welles to appear on The Love Boat, which Welles is reluctant to accept. The money isn’t so hot and the obvious lure for down-and-out talent – a free cruise – doesn’t appeal to him. “They don’t know that I can go on any cruise in the world free,” he says, “if I lecture, or do magic one night and then sign autographs.”

But there’s another reason: “I don’t like the man who plays the captain. From Mary Tyler Moore. He has a kind of New York accent that gets my hackles up. I can’t stand it!”

Welles gleefully gets Jaglom’s hackles up, too, saying outrageous things about various actors (e.g., “Larry [Olivier] is very – I mean, seriously – stupid”; he refers to Dudley Moore as “the dwarf,” etc.”), films (he and Jaglom share a dislike of Vertigo but argue over the merits of Powell & Pressburger), and various nationalities and ethnicities. “Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. Bosnians have short necks…Measure them. Measure them!”

The book, of course, is much more than this, with Welles making astute observations of 20th century history and art that he was so much a part of, as well as prescient statements about Hollywood and the industry that so stupidly rejected him. Most significantly, it helps clarify exactly why (and because of whom) he was ultimately unable to get any of these promising works off the ground, and identifying those who, like Prince Hal in Falstaff, rejected him and broke his heart.

orson_jaglom_4

Long after reading My Lunches with Orson some questions remained, and Henry Jaglom generously took time out from the busy postproduction of his latest film, Ovation (2015), to answer them:

WCP: Reading and hearing about Orson Welles’s last years, prior to this book one had the image of the two of you desperately trying to sell people these magnificent projects, but that no one was buying. The book reveals a subtly different reality, one more complex, that instead of Welles being bereft of any offers at all, the two of you were fielding a variety of obscenely complex proposals, some shaky at their end rather than yours. Welles, however, was quite understandably cautious. He wasn’t about to agree to anything without a signed contract that ensured him final cut, and one that explicitly detailed where and how certain things would be done, and by whom. For instance, at one point he’s very insistent that postproduction on one project be done in the United States (rather than France) for tax reasons. On another (or maybe it was the same project) he talks about wanting to make sure that he retained home video rights. In other words, rather than the image of the artist denied his paints it was more a case of the artist desperately wanting to move forward but more so wanting to ensure that he wouldn’t get screwed over like so many times in the past?

Henry Jaglom: No, basically it was about him being denied his paints, though it is also true that his need for self-protection required certain things, certain freedom, casting, final cut. But essentially no one was buying, except that one time with Arnon Milchan and the actors Milchan required all said no in one way or another. No one else ever offered a real deal.

WCP: Well, then, do you imagine if the deal hadn’t fallen apart that he might have compromised his position on some things in order to make it happen, or would he have held film, even if that meant killing an offer? What if, say, everything had been set, but they insisted on an actor Welles didn’t like (e.g., Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman in The Big Brass Ring)? 

Henry Jaglom: All three too “ethnic” he said, couldn’t win the Midwest, couldn’t become President. Wish he’d lived to see Obama, it was beyond his imagination. Wish my parents, for that matter, had lived to see the unimaginable Obama.

WCP: Other than Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder, I can’t think of another book where one can clearly hear the subject’s voice, and all the subtleties that go with it, as one reads it. (I didn’t hear Hitchcock’s voice while reading Truffaut’s book, for instance.) As you and Peter Biskind were putting all this material together, did the Orson Welles you knew so well come alive again in that sense, a person that was in some ways very different from his public persona?

Henry Jaglom: He was, on the tapes, exactly as I had remembered him nearly 30 years before

WCP: Near the end of the book Welles is essentially saying that he’s got to make a living with money coming in NOW, not later. That people didn’t seem to realize that he, too, was mortal, That he had bills to pay, people to support, that he couldn’t devote a year of his life on a film, however personally rewarding, if founded on a vague promise that he’d be paid once everything’s done. What struck me as so profoundly sad about those remarks is that they’re nearly identical to what scads of struggling professional writers with a couple of books or scripts under their belts go through all the time – only in this case, here it was happening to the greatest living filmmaker. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.

Henry Jaglom: Exactly. I don’t see a question here, though.

WCP: Well, maybe it’s more an observation that the book clarifies just how tragic the situation was, that on one hand he had to eat and pay bills just like the rest of us, and to the degree that impeded his ability to make films, that – try as you might – he was in a pretty hopeless situation. Let me put it another way: What should have been in place then, and perhaps still needs to been in place now, to ensure artists like Welles are able to work? Some sort of National Endowment for the Arts program? One partially funded by the major film companies? And, were he now the age he was then, do you think the adoption of new technologies like HD video would have made it easier for him to keep making films, or has the distribution end of things changed so radically that it might be worse?

Henry Jaglom: Yes, only a National Government thing would have made a difference. Films can be made much less expensively now, the technology would have enthralled him, but distribution theatrically is much worse. But non-theatrically has become something else and I think that the long form of quality TV that started with The Sopranos, combined with the incredible simplification of the technologies would have allowed him to possibly thrive. But the problem was he didn’t want to make films like mine with limited audiences like I’m happy with. He had had too big a taste of mass success (even if never financial success) to make “small” films for limited audiences, he needed to “show them” that he was still capable of making a BIG film, especially after F For Fake failed to even get distribution. (Today I could have distributed it like I did for Max Schell’s My Sister Maria and several their films.) But, once having failed at even that, the small art film, he reverted to the idea that his “next” film should show “them” that he was still in their game. That was his most self-destructive notion, combined with the idea that I was lucky because I wanted to make films about ”people sitting in rooms talking to one another” and he needed to bring “Elephants onto the hills above Rome,” [as] he would say.

WCP: Throughout the book, Welles frequently expresses very strong, negative opinions about seemingly unimpeachable movies and directors. For instance, I was surprised by his dislike of Powell & Pressburger, who movies I would have expected him to adore for their intelligence and cinematic innovation. Do you think he really felt that way? Or did he sometimes say something controversial for effect, or could his opinions have been colored by so many decades of professional disappointments at being treated so badly?

Henry Jaglom: He certainly said some things for effect or mostly to get a rise out of me, like some of his silly stuff about the Irish and some other groups, but what he said about actors and directors and movies expressed his real views in every case.

He knew I loved Powell and Pressburger, so perhaps he said whatever more strongly than he might otherwise. But where we agreed, like on post-black-and-white Hitchcock like Vertigo he was just as strong and opinionated. These comments were his real views, [and] I don’t believe they were influenced by his disappointments or said for effect.

WCP: And yet the book is often hysterically funny in the way Welles criticizes fellow actors. For example, saying John Gielgud played Shakespeare “as though he were dictating it to his secretary…’Witness this army…Have you got that, Miss Jones? Such mass and charge, led by a delicate and tender prince…Am I going too fast for you?’” This was a facet of his personally one normally didn’t see on The Merv Griffin Show.

Henry Jaglom: But he meant the criticisms he made, and the judgments about others and their work, even when he knew he was being funny and entertaining. We knew each other so well and this book only reflects a small percent of that. But, of course, he wasn’t going to show that side on Merv Griffin.

WCP: During the last ten years of his life, friends and professional colleagues in a position to help him get one of his films off the ground essentially turned their back on him. My Lunches with Orson identifies some of these people. And while most of the actors and filmmakers Welles has harsh words for have since passed away (Olivier, Charlton Heston, et. al.), some of the others are still living. Have you heard from people like Peter Bogdanovich, John Landis, Burt Reynolds or others since its publication? And were you and Peter Biskind compelled to leave anything out?

Henry Jaglom: My deal with Biskind was that the only things I could insist on his taking out were personal things about Oja Kodar, though I did get him, with some pressure, to agree to take out one most personal item about Bogdanovich and one intimate one about Spielberg, both I felt much too personal. Yes, John Landis called me up and was very upset and – needless to say – so was my old friend Peter, to put it mildly, especially after Maureen Dowd’s review in The New York Times. I don’t know Burt Reynolds but can’t imagine he can read.

WCP: According to the book, there was a kind of unspoken agreement that the subject of Welles’s weight was off-limits. What the book doesn’t address, and perhaps you never discussed with him but maybe the backers you negotiated with, was the question of whether or not he was insurable, what with all his various maladies. Was that ever a concern, and did you ever discuss a back-up plan/director should he have become unable to finish one of these late-career movies, as was done with John Huston on The Dead?

Henry Jaglom: His weight was the one subject we never talked about, though he would from time to time tell me how many laps he had swum that day, trying to earnestly prove that he was trying. And when we were together in LA or New York or Paris or Cannes he ate carefully, but I learned that late nights at hotels were a very different story. Whether he was insurable never came up, strangely enough, because we knew there were doctors who would write what was necessary. What various maladies, his knees were his main problem. Your mentioning John Huston reminds me of one of the most touching days. Shortly after Orson died, Huston called and came up to my cutting room to see footage on my Kem of Orson talking about this and that in his last film, which I was cutting, Someone To Love. Huston with an oxygen mask attached to his face and a nurse/girlfriend carrying it, as he sat and watched his old friend for the last time.

WCP: What are your thoughts on the current plans to release The Other Side of the Wind?

Henry Jaglom: You know as much as I do. It was some of my best acting and scenes from it moved around the Internet a few years ago, which was fun and are now vanished. It was hard to tell what it would look like if somehow all put together. I am skeptical but Bogdanovich tells me that they are “working on it.”

WCP: This year marks the centenary of Orson Welles’s birth. Will you be participating in any special screenings/events to mark the occasion?

Henry Jaglom: All kinds of people planning all kinds of things. Did you see the four shows on TCM with me hosting about Orson one night some months ago, two of his films and two of mine? Interviews about him in-between. It was well done, and they are talking about something for his 100th Birthday, as are many others.

WCP: You’re now several years older than Welles was when he passed away. When you look back at those conversations now, can you see things now that you couldn’t see when you were in your forties? And are there things the older, wiser Henry Jaglom wishes the younger version of yourself had asked him about?

Henry Jaglom: Really? I’m older than Orson was? Wow, I feel like a kid, the same age I was then. Hard to believe but I’ll take your word for it. No, there is absolutely nothing I feel that would be different, nothing I didn’t see and feel I understood about him back then, nothing I can think of that I would have asked him about that I didn’t. I’ve always been very open and easily communicative and Orson made it easy to be that way with him because he was so open and communicative with me. I just wish I could show him the films I’ve made; that would be a lot of fun.

It was also really interesting to discover that Welles had some input into your screenplay for Always. Since his death, when you’re writing, shooting, or cutting do you ever ask yourself, “What would Orson do?”

Henry Jaglom: All the time! I have tapes somewhere of his sitting behind me smoking his cigar while I’m editing Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? and commenting and suggesting all sorts of things. I always have his voice in my ear while I edit, which I’m doing right now as I write this, on my new film, Ovation.

Hey, Amazon! Where's My Stuff?

Perils of the Amazon

Like it or not, Amazon.com has become an important, even primary source for many of us buying DVDs and Blu-rays. The Seattle-based company, founded in 1994, has with its success made a profound negative impact on bookstores and other retail stores selling home video software. The trade-off, for the consumer, has been Amazon’s highly competitive prices and its relative convenience. Order a movie or two, and it’ll show up on one’s doorstep a few days later. For this writer, living in far-flung Japan, Amazon has become an essential tool in my ability to see movies and read cinema-related books not otherwise available here. I’m glad as was able to find a few coupons codes that gave me some pretty good discounts, you can go to this web-site to find them!

Recently, however, the convenience that was once so much a part of Amazon’s appeal has become considerably less than it once was. Their shipping estimates seem arbitrary and increasingly unreliable. Movies don’t show up when they’re supposed to, and I find myself spending a lot more time on the computer, chatting long-distance with one of their customer service reps trying to locate and rectify MIA packages. Unmetered Dedicated Servers are ideal for the people who need to host applications that require very high bandwidth. These are the services and applications that consume lots of bandwidth. This includes content delivery, digital radio, video calls, IPTV, streaming, and so on. There are people who rely on such options to power business. This provides them with an environment that is unrestricted and worry-free. This is the chance for businesses to elevate to completely new levels and give the customers an experience that is optimal without the need for buffering or waiting on very slow downloading speeds. Every Knownhost VPS Hosting server can, therefore, be able to handle many more viewers and more users can view the content concurrently. Usually, what is offered depends on the provider. You can choose whatever you need and you are free to choose the kind of ports that you need. Usually, one is offered different plans to choose from. The best thing is that you do not share the port speed. This is an amazing addition to all enterprise websites because of the technical requirements included. How well the service is able to cater for your needs depends on the network carriers, as well as the hard drives available. The power feeds are also as important and so are the OS choices. When you have many OS choices, it means you can settle for the one that is ideal for you. By choosing the best service provider, you will be in a position to concentrate on more important matters regarding your business. Ultimately, this will allow you to enjoy more revenue.

Hey, Amazon! Where's My Stuff?

Hey, Amazon! Where’s My Stuff?

What’s really odd about all this is that the problems I’ve been encountering are pretty much limited to Amazon’s U.S. branch. Amazon Japan is so efficient it’s possible for me to order a product in the morning and, with no delivery charge at all, have it arrive the same day. And reliable, next-day delivery is the happy norm.

I also frequently order movies from Amazons UK, Spain and, less so, France, Italy, and Germany. In most instances I can order a product from one of these Euro-Amazons and it’ll ship within 48 hours and I’ll have it within 7-10 days. Amazon UK is sometimes considerably faster. Four or five days door-to-door is not uncommon, and twice I had orders arrive just three days after placing them.

Amazon USA is another story. For example, last November 10th I received an email from Amazon Germany informing me that a Blu-ray I ordered should arrive November 22-27, some twelve to seventeen days hence. Instead, it made it to Kyoto on November 20th, two days earlier than the range provided.

Also on November 10th I received an email from Amazon USA stating that my order of two Blu-rays, Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker and The Muppet Christmas Carol had shipped. However, this order inexplicably would take much longer, with an “estimated delivery date” of December 26th, i.e., six weeks and four days. When I first placed the order, I was given a range: December 5-26. But now the estimate was fixed at the far end, “December 26th.”

Here I was figuring I could order that Muppets Christmas movie in early November and be pretty certain that it would arrive well before Christmas, but here was Amazon telling me that, no, they’d need six weeks and four days to get it to me.

Amazon 1

Granted, I live in Japan, but virtually all standard Air Mail shipped from anywhere in the U.S., whether a one-page letter or a 50-pound box of books, typically takes 7-12 days to reach me. Even packages sent by cargo ship across the Pacific, and even factoring customs inspections and other potential delays, typically takes about a month. But six weeks?

I decided to take my chances. It seemed possibly, even very likely, that the two discs would reach me before Christmas. And even if, say, The Muppet Christmas Carol showed up on Christmas Day or even on the 26th, while not ideal, my seven-year-old daughter and I could still watch and enjoy it.

But it didn’t. The 26th came and went and no Blu-rays in sight. I did a little checking on Amazon’s website and discovered the etailer contradicting its very own estimates. On a page entitled “Christmas Ordering Deadlines for International Destinations,” the listing for US-to-Japan shipments stated a cut-off date of November 25th for orders using, as I had, Standard International Shipping. In other words, buy something and have it shipped before November 25th and it’ll arrive before Christmas. So why did my order, shipped more than two weeks before November 25th, list a delivery date after Christmas? And where the heck was it, anyway?

Alas, I had no way to determine its status along the delivery food chain as no tracking was available on this shipment, according to Amazon.

And so, on 27 December I live-chatted with “Agastya” at Amazon, asking how, by way of comparison, an order I placed with Amazon UK on December 18th had manage to arrive before an order I placed with them on November 10th, nearly six week earlier? From our conversation:

Agastya: “I’m sorry, it appears that your package has been delayed in transit by the carrier. This doesn’t happen usually. However, I can confirm that the package will be delivered to you on or before December 30, 2014. Please wait until to receive your package.”

Me: “Who wants to watch a Christmas movie a week after Christmas has come and gone? … You say the package was ‘delayed in transit by the carrier.’ If there’s no tracking available on the package, how can you know this? Delayed by whom? Where en route? [And] how do you know it will show up by 12/30?”

Agastya: “I’m sorry that the tracking is not updated. I have contacted the carrier on your behalf and asked them to update it. It will be updated soon.”

Me: “That’s my point, that there is NO tracking on this package, at least none available to me. Are you seeing tracking that I can’t?”

Agastya: “To expedite delivery, CARRIER doesn’t scan all of their shipments at all locations–this can limit the amount of tracking data available. When shipping volume is high, packages are processed in bulk, and the first time a package is scanned may be when it arrives near its delivery destination. In some cases, tracking information may not appear until the package has been delivered.”

Me: “Okay, so what are the chances that the package will arrive on or before 12/30? 80%? 30%?”

Agastya: “We can assure you that it will arrive before 30th December, 2014 itself.”

Amazon 2

You’ve probably already guessed what happened next. December 30th, no package. And neither did it arrive on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, or January 2nd. I contacted Amazon again, asked for and received a full refund. The discs did finally turn up – on January 6th – 57 days after it supposedly had been shipped.

The package had no date stamp from the United States Post Office. This is SOP for Amazon’s “Standard International Shipping” orders but that also means consumers really have no way at all of knowing whether Amazon is being truthful when they email you, claiming that “your order has shipped!” For all I know, my November 10th “shipment” might well have left Amazon’s warehouse after Christmas.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. What one takes away from this experience are a lot of unanswered questions. Why, for instance, is it common for two different but “in stock,” media-identical orders supposedly shipped on the same day to have wildly differing estimated delivery dates? Why is that consumers don’t have access to tracking information available to Amazon’s customer service reps? Why is it that they are not using customer service systems like the ones offered by Salesforce.

Even if, as Agastya seems to be suggesting, Amazon ships standard delivery international items in bulk (and, presumably, by sea), that still doesn’t explain why they’re now so frequently missing their own overly-generous delivery estimates, or why something that should take one month instead takes two.

Recently consumers are becoming savvy to the move by airlines to deliberately make economy class air travel so unpleasant that it will compel travelers to pay piecemeal for upgrades, to make the experience of cross-country travel less dreary than it inevitably has become. My guess is that Amazon is up to something similar, perhaps not deliberately delaying packages, but neither do they seem terribly concerned about untimely service, either.

When the consumer complains and assertively asks for, as I did, a refund, most of the time they’ll comply without a lot of fuss. But I’m guessing that most consumers don’t go that far when their packages are late and so, from a financial standpoint, Amazon is perfectly content frequently missing delivery dates, knowing only a small percentage of their customers will hold them accountable.

What about you? Are you experiencing similar problems? Asking the same questions? Use our “Contact Us” form on our “About Us” page and, over the next few weeks, we’ll post some of your emails.

Day Featured

World Cinema Paradise’s Best of Blu – 2014

Despite nearly everyone’s insistence (so it seems) that physical media is dead as a doornail, 2014 has, truly, been a remarkable year for home video, Blu-ray particularly. From an agonizingly slow start when the format was new, the flow of classic titles really exploded in the last year. It’s been hard to keep up with all of the terrific catalog titles, even if most are being sublicensed by the majors to boutique labels like Olive Films, Kino, and Twilight Time.

Region-free Blu-ray players have become an essential piece of hardware, with so many of the best titles emanating from the damndest places. For instance, some of the best ‘50s Hollywood Westerns and sci-fi pictures, for instance, are currently exclusively available from German labels. Further, video transfers and better extras from non-U.S. labels (Britain’s Arrow Films, for instance) are often far superior to their American counterparts. Sporadically, many French, Spanish, German, Italian, Indian, and other countries occasionally offer domestic Blu-rays of their country’s classic films with English subtitles.

But perhaps most exciting developments in the Blu-ray realm have been the growing list of classic 3-D titles and the continuing reemergence of long-lost Cinerama releases. These movies were next to impossible to see anywhere in the world at all. Today one can enjoy a very good approximation of what it was like for paying audiences when these movies were new, in the comfort of one’s own home. And that, folks, is simply amazing.

Narrowing a Best of Blu-ray list to only ten titles proved a daunting task. This is not a list of the greatest movies released in 2014 or even necessarily the greatest video transfers. In large part, however, it does take into consideration the work that went into reconstructing/restoring/presenting it (as opposed to simply releasing a preexisting video transfer), the “bang for the buck,” particularly in terms of the results versus the funds available to the label to do the work, and the creativity and ingenuity involved in the creation of extra features.

And away we go…

Day Earth Caught Fire

1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1962)
This extremely smart and adult science fiction film seemed pretty good when for years it ran panned-and-scanned on commercial television, but the BFI’s outstanding Blu-ray offers a picture-perfect transfer of its extremely impressive ‘scope photography (and special tinting for its opening and closing reels), with audio far superior to Anchor Bay’s years-ago DVD release. All of the fine extras from that earlier release have been ported over, along with many fine new ones – look for Leo McKern, in one his last interviews, doing a hilarious imitation of star Edward Judd!

Mad World

2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Fans of Stanley Kramer’s all-star epic comedy have for years been clamoring for a reconstruction of this film’s short-lived original roadshow version. Criterion’s release reinstates nearly all of the lost footage, which subtly but effectively improves the film’s pacing, even with its longer running time, adding fine little bits of comedy long thought lost. The many fine extra features include 2014’s Audio Commentary Track of the Year, a deeply affectionate yet densely informative track that’s a real joy to listen to.

Werner Herzog

3. The Werner Herzog Collection (Werner Herzog, 1967-1987)
I envy those who’ll “blind-buy” this amazing collection of shorts and features, viewers unprepared for Herzog’s uniquely hypnotic, visionary films. If this set, well under $100 had included only Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) it would have been worth every penny, but this boxed set includes scads more films and shorts, and hours-upon-hours of extra features content.

Seven Wonders

4. Seven Wonders of the World (Tay Garnett & Paul Mantz & Andrew Marton & Ted Tetzlaff & Walter Thompson, 1956)
David Strohmaier and his plucky band of restoration artists rescued three Cinerama titles from oblivion in 2014, the other two being Search for Paradise (1957) and Holiday in Spain (1960). Seven Wonders of the World is the best of the three, a visually spectacular tour around the globe chockfull of natural and man-made sights from a fascinating, singularly 1950s “Free World” perspective. More than any other movies from its time, the Cinerama format is the movie’s equivalent of a time machine, an experience not to be missed. Crammed with great extras.

Pit Stop

5. Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider get all the praise, but Jack Hill’s movies of the 1960s and early ‘70s are in their own way just as revolutionary and innovative. Another gorgeous high-def transfer from Arrow Films, this is one of Jack Hill’s best (and frequently startling) films. Despite its ultra-low budget, this is a fascinating and smart little movie you’ll not want to pass up. As usual for Arrow, this is packed with creative extra features.

Planet of Vampires

6. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
Mario Bava’s enormously influential sci-fi horror film (Ever see Alien?) is an eye-popping parade of surrealistic sets, costumes, and special effects, but even in Bava’s home country the best anyone could come up with until was a widescreen DVD. Scorpion’s new Blu-ray rectifies all that, with a gorgeously, richly-colored transfer that at long-last does Bava’s vastly-underrated work justice. Add to that a densely packed, fact-filled and observant audio commentary by Bava authority Tim Lucas and you’ve got one of the year’s best releases.

Infero

7. Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953)
This classical era 3-D production was initially released Region B only by British label Panamint Cinema but, almost under the radar, they’ve reissued it region-free. If you’ve got a 3-D set-up at home, this is one you’re going to want to get. A terrific desert noir, Inferno stars Robert Ryan as a wealthy, urban company president whose mettle is tested when his trophy wife and her secret lover abandon him (and his broken leg) in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization. Filmed in Technicolor (and thus requiring no less than six strips of 35mm film for each shot!) this release is a thing of stereoscopic beauty, perhaps the best-looking 1950s 3-D release on Blu-ray so far.

55 Days Blu

8. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)
In this age of CGI excess, the gargantuan roadshows of producer Samuel Bronston seem downright tasteful and restrained now, and despite their occasional shortcomings remain intelligent, thoughtful, and undeniably awesome in their full-scale epicness. This one, set during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, features an incredible reproduction of turn of the century Beijing, all built full-scale on the plains of Spain. On big home theater screens (I watched this on a 90-inch screen), the film’s grandeur is truly a sight to behold, especially via the picture’s stunning restoration from its original Super Technirama 70 negative.

Mack Sennett

9. The Mack Sennett Collection (various, 1909-1933) Flicker Alley; ALL
A revelatory set of rescued silent short subjects (plus a couple of feature) that demonstrate the incredible range not just of producer Sennett but also his company of comics, gag writers, and directors. Those whose image of Mack Sennett is limited to the Keystone Kops will be enormously surprised – and delighted – by the range of these delightful comedies. Many fine extras, including a genuinely touching This Is Your Life.

Price 2

10. The Vincent Price Collection, Volume 2 (various, 1958-1972)
A worthy follow-up to Shout! Factory’s Volume 1, this set – featuring House on Haunted Hill, Return of the Fly, The Raven, Comedy of Terrors, Tomb of Ligeia, The Last Man on Earth, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Most were licensed from MGM, but Shout! went the extra mile licensing and insuring good transfers of the Allied Artist Haunted Hill and Fox’s Return of the Fly, as well as locating and creating lots of good new supplements.

Some Honorable Mentions:

The Essential Jacques Demy, The Sicilian Clan, Gravity (3-D), Gulliver’s Travels, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Tomorrow, Judex, Man Hunt, His and Hers, The Death Kiss, Dragonfly Squadron (3-D), The Bubble (3-D), Last of the Unjust, The Conformist, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Girl Hunters, The François Truffaut Collection.

Star Featured true

The ‘Star Wars’ Movie You Won’t Be Seeing Next Year

Star Wars fans are like Democrats. Hope springs eternal for another movie that’ll recapture the magic many of us experienced seeing the original film (Franklin Roosevelt) more than 37 years ago but, time and again, these hopes are senselessly dashed, from Return of the Jedi (Walter Mondale) to The Phantom Menace (Al Gore). And now they’re pinning their hopes on (what they perceive) as a visionary director, JJ Abrams (Barack Obama) to clean up the catastrophic mess left behind by George Lucas (George W. Bush). And just as the country remains fiercely divided about Obama’s legacy, with many of his supporters wanting so much to believe the state of the union has improved under his watch, so too will Abrams’s followers strain to find something good to say about his vision of Star Wars, regardless of how the film really turns out. Meanwhile others (Republican pundits) are already finding fault with absolutely everything in the new movie’s trailer, a full year before its official release.

It’s preordained that Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) will make a boatload of money, probably a billion dollars, even if it’s no damn good. It also seems likely that it will be at least a bit better than the woebegone prequel trilogy of the late 1990s-early 2000s, if only because it won’t be subjected to Lucas’s meddling mitts. But will it be any good? Like the Mel Brooks song, hope for the best, expect the worst.

Here’s why: Few seem to grasp, even now, even probably Abrams, the reasons the original Star Wars became the pop cultural icon it did. The other reason is that the movie marketplace has changed so dramatically since 1977 as to render another film like it highly improbable if not impossible.

When Star Wars was brand-new, I was a young lad of 11-12 years old and vividly recall the impact that first film had on ordinary, unsuspecting moviegoers. And it wasn’t just in terms of its startling and varied orgy of special effects, though they undeniably played a role. No, it was everything, the combined strengths of its ingenious synthesis of cinematic influences, the direction, cinematography, music, performances – everything, all accidentally perfectly timed for an audience primed for such an immensely joyful, even cathartic, movie-watching experience. It was a rare example (The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca being two others) of the accidental masterpiece, a movie that could easily have been terrible, but that, luck on its side, miraculously, perfectly fell into place at exactly the right time. You can also visit https://real-movies123.com/

Simply put, audiences were completely unprepared for what they saw. Remember, this was long before the Internet, cable television, the ability to watch movies anywhere at one’s convenience, and a time when pre-release hype was limited to little featurettes that occasionally ran as filler after network prime-time movie airings, or a star plugging his new movie on The Tonight Show. Star Wars appeared as if out of nowhere.

Few saw it opening day, as it opened on a mere 32 screens — 32 screens! — unimaginable in today’s economy. I probably first saw it in June, in a packed theater of film-goers only vaguely aware of the growing buzz, spurred by news reports of long lines on both coasts and ecstatic audience reaction. During those early months – and I personally experienced the film around 15 times during 1977, including once at a drive-in – audiences literally, audibly gasped. They responded with spontaneous laughter, applause, even cheers. It remained in theaters four out of the next five years.

The new Star Wars movie will likely open on at least 5,000 screens and, of course, already, a year before it’s out, fans are scrutinizing scads of photos being leaked across the Internet, and literally every last shot of that teaser trailer. I don’t envy Abrams. Movies shouldn’t be subject to such intense scrutiny before they’re even finished. It would have better to keep everything under wraps until opening day but that’s impossible in this day and age; that Disney’s publicity people want to exert at least some control over the flow of leaked material is probably understandable.

But the new Star Wars won’t be made for me and it won’t be made for you, either. With a projected $200 million budget (about 20 times the cost of the original) it can’t help but cater to the broadest possible worldwide audience, and that means taking few chances or “pleasing the fans.” The first movie was so memorable because it was the first movie – everything was new. Everything since involves characters and a universe we’re now all intimately familiar.

Abrams and cinematographer Daniel Mindel are to be commended for stating publicly they want to minimize the use of CGI and instead film on real locations and utilize scale models as the original trilogy but not the prequels had. Whether this comes to pass is unknown though these good intentions do not seem borne out in the trailer. Regardless, I’d like to see Abrams go significantly further than that.

Would should be a cardinal rule for anyone making a remake or sequel to such films is an intensive study of what made the original so appealing in the first place. This is not to say the filmmakers are obliged to copy those elements or to bend to the demands and expectations of fans of such pictures. But it only makes sense to clearly understand what worked the first time around and to build on that success, or to consciously move in different directions for valid reasons, and even sometimes to subvert what worked before into a work entirely new. Any of these approaches are fraught with peril: Lucas tried second-guessing audience expectations in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (1983) and the results were movies with both good and terrible ideas. By the time he got around to the prequels he decided to fashion them into precisely and down to the last detail exactly what he thought they should be, all other core creative input be damned. Those movies pleased so few because either even he didn’t understand why Star Wars was so embraced. Or maybe he subconsciously wanted to aesthetically dismantle all that he had built. Maybe he was only interested in making money.

But, even earlier, other than some strong story developments in Empire (negated somewhat by several supremely bad choices elsewhere), none of the Star Wars sequels to date have lived up to their potential. Partly this was Lucas’s obsession with raising the bar in terms of the visual effects with each film and implementing CGI technology. Most of the truly bad ideas in the original sequels were his.

Star Wars advance

The new Star Wars would be better with less, a less frenetic, more deliberate pace and, most important of all, an intelligent, adult, and humanist approach to its story and characters. The first film had between 300-380 special effects shots, compared to around 2,000 in each of the prequel films. Some CGI-filled movies today have closer to 3,000, resembling video games more than movies. What the new Star Wars movie should do but probably won’t is dramatically deemphasize the visual effects. I long to see long stretches of real, unenhanced location work backgrounding character-driven scenes. A few major set pieces, as with the original picture, would be far more dramatic, especially if the screenplay carefully and intelligently laid the groundwork for (and reestablishes) characters and a story its audience can truly embrace.

But I just don’t see that sort of thing in Abrams’s filmography. His Star Trek (2009) probably had more effects shots during its first ten minutes than the entire original Star Wars. I don’t have data about the average shot length in Abrams’s Star Trek movies versus the original Star Wars, but I’d expect the total number of shots of all kinds to dwarf any of the original films.

Star Wars came along at a time when Hollywood-made and foreign films tended to be downbeat and pessimistic: think A Clockwork Orange, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Network, Nashville, etc. As important as its special effects, more so even, was that Star Wars provided escapist entertainment when such movies were comparatively rare. Today, virtually all Hollywood-produced movies are high-concept, superficial escapism. Just as Star Wars movies are no longer light years ahead of industry standards in terms of their special effects, so too is it no longer an entertainment anomaly generally. Audiences have become more sophisticated in terms of their awareness of movie technology, and in tandem have also become much more jaded, even afraid to feel. The spontaneous, unselfconscious euphoria audiences felt as the end credits of the original Star Wars rolled during the summer of 1977 is hard to imagine today. Indeed, readers too young to have seen Star Wars when it was new might find the very idea of that last sentence perplexing. But it’s also exactly what Star Wars fans have been positively craving to experience again for decades.

The new movie brings back the original trilogy’s stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. Probably there will be a lot of smart-alecky dialogue about them being too old for this sort of space-swashbuckling (one can already anticipate the catch-phrases), something akin to the jokey, obvious lines found in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), made when Ford was 65. But wouldn’t it be something if the new Star Wars script could find a way to humanistically reflect some of the concerns and interests these favorite characters might be experiencing and feeling in their late-middle age? (Well, Harrison’s now 72. Han Solo’s “autumn years,” perhaps?) The new Star Wars is primarily, perhaps unavoidably targeting 18-24 year olds who don’t have the patience for such contemplation, but what about the millions of original Star Wars fans, primarily moviegoers now in their late-40s to late-60s? The first film was such a resounding success partly because it appealed to such a broad audience spectrum: theaters weren’t just crammed with kids, but middle-aged and senior citizens who rarely went to the movies, many of whom had probably never seen a science fiction-fantasy film in their life. Not before or since have I seen a phenomenon like it: a movie that practically everyone, all age groups, races, tastes, etc. had to see at least once, a movie that nearly everyone enjoyed immensely.

Why can’t we have that again?