Sabers and Hatchets

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean will undoubtedly endure as a popular franchise in spite of the sometimes painful flaws that make the contrived trilogy a journey that begins with promise, hits a high note in the mid-section, and withers into a brackish puddle of nonsense.

Pirates I, The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), ran anywhere from 20-45 mins. too long and just kept dragging characters into unending conflicts before the end credits finally rolled and wrapped up a 143 min. running time. In spite of its egotistical length and a bombastic score that borrowed from every Media Ventures sample library and bludgeoned audiences with thematic material all-too reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s action scores for Jerry Bruckheimer’s prior excesses, it still managed to be, well, fun, which is surprising, given the film’s roots stem from an amusement park ride.

Pirates II, Dead Man’s Chest (2006), was all-action, pitting the heroes and heroine in streams of deadly situations that were solved by crazy physical feats or strokes of extreme luck. Like an episode from an old serial, there was no beginning or end – it just motored ahead at full speed, and terminated with a cliffhanger that seemed almost impossible to solve. Fans either found the film loud, incoherent, and bloated with action-comedy set-pieces, or welcomed its fast tempo that managed to offset the 150 min. running time. The new characters were an amazing collection of humans and CGI enhancements, and the score managed to exploit the dynamic violin twitter, and distance itself from the prior avalanche of bombast.

Pirates III, At World’s End (2007), began with a song-enhanced public execution, and had us eager to see how Jack Sparrow managed to escape from the massive sea monster’s bowels… only to have us pondering what felt like a deleted nightmare montage from Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, left unfilmed because a brig stuck in the desert and crabs resembling rocks and multiple characters talking to each other was maybe deemed incoherent, if not immaterial to the plot.

And that’s about where the film’s true colours came through: talky with pseudo-myth explanations of what the second film’s mysterious legends all meant; scaled-down action scenes which themselves had little point beyond interrupting dull blatherings of pirates meeting, arguing, back-stabbing, meeting, cussing, and back-stabbing; and a revolving set of scenes that had characters playing pirate chess – moving from prisoner to freeman to hostage to barter victim to hero to prisoner through an endless, pointless series of looped sequences that failed to propel whatever story the writers had concocted to justify a third film, running almost 3 hours.

It made no sense, it ran too long, it wasn’t funny, the action was a pale and cheapened imitation of the kinetic battle scenes of Pirates II, and it was all waste of time, with a considerable talent pool (read: Chow Yun-Fat) left un-mined.

If the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy illustrated how the swashbuckling genre could be vivified after some relatively recent colossal failures – Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995) – it also demonstrated how one could kill it through excess.

The genre enjoyed a steady run during the forties with entries like The Black Swan (1942) taking over from the more serious epics – Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940) - headlined by Errol Flynn, although humour always played a role in balancing danger with saccharine romance.

When Burt Lancaster moved into the genre via The Crimson Pirate (1952), through his own grinning, gymnastic personality and Roland Kibbee’s giddy screenplay, formal conventions were spoofed – but without ridiculing some of their silliest aspects. Pirate chess still formed the backbone of the film – lured by treasure, captured by rebels, escape, encounter with buxom babe, capture by snotty royal army, some swordplay on deck and in the captain’s quarters, a big final battle, and maybe some singing – but the key genre changes refined the sidekick formula – two overt goofballs either creating mischief in unison, poking at each other’s sanity, or competing for the hot babe – and humour through choreographed action that tested the wit of the characters by placing them in impossibly absurd situations.

Lancaster and Nick Cravat established a formula that is amazingly contemporary because it’s been copied into other genres, and partly inspired Roman Polanski to make his own pirate movie, decades later.

Alongside the epic spectacle of sword and sandal films, pirates kind of popped up through a series of both serious films – High Wind in Jamaica (1965) – and fluff, and the most intriguing among the latter camp had Errol Flynn’s son Sean make his feature film debut in Son of Captain Blood (1962).

Recently released in France on DVD, Son of Captain Blood is not a good movie; the direction is bland and distanced, the music grating, the pacing a mess, and the finale’s borrowing from The Hurricane (1937) just plain preposterous. But it’s a definite curio, and while an example of how to make a limp swashbuckling epic on a shoestring, it’s also fascinating to see how the filmmakers tried to introduce Sean Flynn as a potential action hero by sliding him into the role of Peter Blood’s son, Robert.

His mom sees the sparkle and rebelliousness of his father in the boy, and lets Robert chance the sea on a merchant vessel, and for the first scenes of Flynn on the boat, it’s as though he was either coaxed or felt the need to grin and maintain a boyish comportment to evoke the spirit of father Errol, while the writers and director had voyaging women (mostly teens and youths) ogling and giggling from the sidelines in scenes repeated as if to reassure us that with patience, Sean and the film will deliver the romance and action and excitement redolent of dad’s classic films.

Like the sword and sandal epics, swashbuckling films ran out of steam, and sort of morphed into more exploitive and violent hybrids like Light at the Edge of the World (1971) before running dry, which is perhaps why Polanski may have felt it was time to return with a version that bridged the humour found in The Crimson Pirate with clichés audiences had come to enjoy, after watching the classics on TV and home video.

Pirates (1986) was a prestige production that disappeared very fast from theatres. I remember seeing it billed at Fairview Mall for maybe a week, and then kicking myself for not catching on the big screen; I had doubts about it being good, but it was a ‘scope pirate movie with Walter Matthau chewing the scenery, plus a music score by one of France’s top composers, Philippe Sarde.

Years later it popped up on an ugly panned and scanned VHS tape, and it was, when viewed back in 2002, a dud. A disaster. A mess.

Then came the Jack Sparrow trilogy, with Pirates III reeking of the worst excess hammered into the hull of an epic movie, and in revisiting Polanski’s dud, recently released in Spain in ‘scope transfer, it didn’t seem as indulgent. It’s not a good film, but one does catch glimpses of what Polanski was trying to achieve by crafting his own spin on the genre, and it had a plot; same old same old pirate chess, but it did make its way towards a finale that closed the film at just under 2 hours.

One also could see elements borrowed from Crimson Pirate and in particular, Richard Lester’s land-bound swashbuckling diptych, The Three Musketeers + The Four Musketeers, and appreciate some of the jabs at royal snobbery and religion. That isn’t to say Pirates is deep, but it has aged far better in the intervening years (6) since Disney’s franchise exhausted its good luck by failing to create a meaningful conclusion to its series.

In any event, instead of reviewing the over-reviewed Jack Sparrow films (though you could argue that was done 1000 words ago), we have reviews of The Crimson Pirate (1952), Son of Captain Blood (1962), and Pirates (1986) as examples of genre benders and fumbles that cost a pretty penny, or a smidge more than a ham sandwich.

Also of note this week as we catch-up & wrap up what’s left on the docket is Adam Green’s Hatchet (2006), a sometimes clever effort to rekindle the beloved elements of classic slasher films when latex and buckets of blood ruled before CGI turned murder & mayhem into outtakes from videogames. The unrated director’s cut includes more elastic trauma in the DVD from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment.

Also of note is Bluebeard, Edward Dmytryk’s extremely odd and uneven attempt to upgrade the famous tale of a wife-killer to a fascist, murky Germanic locale. Richard Burton’s accent drifts across a few cultural borders, but his beard is in fact blue, and the women deemed annoying and dispatched to the castle’s cooler are played by several gorgeous actresses, some best-known for their naughty exploitation work. The DVD from Maple / Lionsgate brings back into print one of Anchor’s Bay’s earliest DVD releases, in a clean albeit non-anamorphic transfer.


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Christmas Horror

The myriad DVD releases of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead has made fans skeptical of whether anything new and substantive can possibly be added to the existing archives on prior special editions, and undoubtedly when the film makes its debut on HD (discs of the Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Evil Dead II are already out on Blu-ray), the desire will be not a bare bones edition of Evil Dead, but everything assembled under one roof – which is what the new 3-disc Ultimate Edition mostly manages to achieve.

There’ve been more than enough single editions of The Evil Dead to satisfy budget-conscious fans over the years, so it makes sense to simply offer an Ultimate edition, particularly since those who regard Raimi’s film as a worthy horror flick don’t just like the film – they love it (myself included).

We covered the film in detail when it arrived in the very cool Book of the Dead edition back in 2002, so our review of the Ultimate compares the new extras, things left off, and the re-release of the 1.33:1 full screen version of the film, once available on long out of print DVDs from Elite and Anchor Bay.

There hasn’t been a full clarification by the filmmakers as to exactly how the film was meant to be seen, and it’s a similar problem with Joe Dante’s The Howling: both films were aimed at the drive-market and enjoyed popular home video releases, yet the letterboxed versions on DVD always felt tight, sandwiching and cropping the frame down with a discernible loss of upper and lower detail.

What exactly is the preferred ratio? Well, like MGM’s Howling special edition, Anchor Bay’s Evil Dead Ultimate set gives us the choice, which is important in these cases because there are appreciable benefits to watching the films in 1.33:1 only because the matting, whether or not done primarily to satisfy home theatre buffs, feels tight on the actors’ heads at times.

This isn’t the same thing as a panned and scanned 1.33:1 version of a widescreen film, as movies shot for an intended 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 exhibition ratio should never be touched, and when labels plop a full screen version on a dual layer DVD, you know that useless transfer is taking valuable space away from the widescreen version, robbing it of more visual resolution and a more robust selection of sound mixes you could be enjoying on your home theatre system. The 1.33:1 version of The Evil Dead is on a separate DVD, so it’s not affecting the widescreen version.

In any event, check out our review of the Ultimate Edition from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment, alongside a film review of Within the Woods, the short film made in 1978 by Raimi & Co. to raise funds for the Evil Dead. Currently archived on YouTube, it’s the missing link in completing the archival history of the Evil Dead mythos, and contains a enough unauthorized score and song clips burned into the sound mix to ensure the legal fees necessary to clear the film’s home video release will likely never happen.

Also uploaded is the 1936 British film version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, compacting the Frederick Hayward’s popular play into a short B-movie starring the inimitable Tod Slaughter. It’s creaky and clunky, but works as a fun B-movie, if not an interesting glimpse into the play’s elements reworked by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler for their 1979 musical, filmed by Tim Burton in 2007 and debuting in theatres Dec. 20th. The 1936 film, available from Alpha Video, is also a great intro to Tod Slaughter’s scene-chewing acting style, and fans wanting more info on this marginalized eccentric should visit a detailed and affectionate tribute site HERE.

Also newly uploaded is Suzie Templeton’s wonderful stop-motion animated film of Peter and the Wolf, set in a murky Soviet era period, yet true to the spirit and tragic horror of the original musical narrative by Sergei Prokofiev. Although available in Europe as a Region 2 PAL DVD, it’s worth hunting down if you have a multi-region player. The animation and characterizations in this Oscar-Nominated film are really quite beautiful.

Lastly, while the fine details on a fat review of the newly expanded 2-CD set of Jerry Goldsmith's classic Alien score is being wrapped up, we've added an interview with composer Elia Cmiral, who recently scored two films picked up for the travelling After Dark Horrorfest series: Dario Piana's The Deaths of Ian Stone, and Mark Young's Tooth & Nail.


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One too many

Warner Bros. has chosen to release Blade Runner in seven tiers spread over three formats – DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-Ray – and it’s probably the most overly complicated cross-format release on home video at one time.

The studio’s decision to support all three formats is, for specific format-loyal consumers, probably the most appealing stance in the current high-def [HD] format war; it’s also smart, but with deep pockets, it’s clear the demise of one HD format would affect the major studio less than an indie label who decided to delve into the HD world by supporting what might later emerge as the doomed format, and finding their inventory cluttering delete bins, or idling as year-end write-offs due to a demise in sales.

I’m not really sure if that happened with the original DIVX DVDs, but a friend picked up Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie when that dum-dum format was as good as dead, knowing the film – at the time unavailable on standard DVD because Universal was being stubborn – could be had dirt cheap, so I could have an antique of sorts, and a sample of the studio’s idiotic attempt to circumvent rental shops.

There’s some irony in how Universal regarded DVD as an opportunity to achieve more control over rental revenue via mostly blah full screen DIVX releases, whereas Warner Bros. and New Line, for example, sensed that DVDs could become the ultimate collector format for the film fan, and respectively released superb – and loaded – widescreen editions of Mars Attacks! and The Matrix, for example.

Unlike Universal, which remains HD-DVD exclusive, Warner Bros. is quite committed to both HD formats. Either they’re richer than Universal, or the losing format would basically become a great tax write-off, offsetting the surge in sales of the winning format.

In using Blade Runner as means to appeal to every type of consumer – the average fan, the collector on a budget, and the HD fan and collector with deep pockets – they’re also asking merchants to set aside more shelf space for this singular title (a grating problem for smaller indie stores who regularly have to allot space to another wave of useless reissued, re-branded, titles that just aren’t necessary.)

A remastered edition of Blade Runner? That’s a genuine New Release deserving retail shelf space. Warner Bros. reissuing Logan’s Run and The Omega Man in new alpha cases? Not a New Release, and not deserving hype, regardless of the new cover art. It’s also interesting that The Last Man on Earth, the first version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel, was previously double-billed with Panic in Year Zero as part of MGM’s Midnite Movie series, and while still in print, it’s been reissued by the label with the same extras as a single disc for a smidge less, but with cover art mimicking the new Will Smith version of Matheson’s novel.

(In fairness, MGM’s double-billed edition came out in Canada, was allegedly pulled in the U.S., and was subsequently released in the U.S. and Canada without a kerfuffle. Point: It’s maybe a dollar more than the new reissue, but comes with a second and equally fun cheesy B-film, which the genre fan would probably prefer for the extra buck.)

What’s annoying about the Blade Runner tiers is that the 4-disc mid-price edition on standard DVD aimed at the ardent fan and collector with a budget lacks the golden egg – the workprint version on Disc 5 that’s in the big grey lunchbox. (I know it’s a replica of the Voight-Kampf gizmo, but it looks like a lunchbox.)

While Warner Bros. released special ‘tin’ editions of Forbidden Planet and King Kong (1933) with toys, lobby cards and other trinkets, the same DVDs could be bought for about half the price of the tins; they were the same collector/fan/movie buff editions at a fair price, and anyone wanting the assorted toys could dig deeper into the wallet.

In the case of Blade Runner, the only way to get the 5th DVD on standard DVD is to plop down double the cash for the lunchbox, or buy the non-lunchbox HD edition that’s just a few dollars more and contains all 5 DVDs.

In the case of older back catalogue titles like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Grand Prix, these titles are actually cheaper on HD-DVD than standard DVD, so the tiered Blade Runner scheme may be another attempt to dangle an even better carrot in front of film fans that are tempted to take the HD plunge, and just needed a modern classic as bait - one with what’s arguably one of the best collection of visuals and digital sound mixes perfectly suited to test the home theatre; if any movie could play silently on the wall as gorgeous wallpaper, Blade Runner is it.

For a while now, the studios have been wasting their time releasing mediocre comedies (Wild Hogs, RV) on HD in a silly attempt to appeal to what – the average filmgoer? The action fan who figures The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is just as sexy as 300, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Crank on HD? The family with a flexible budget, happy to spend more on an HD of Norbit than buying or renting it on standard DVD so as to treasure every nuance in HD?

Perhaps it’s best that the big studios are the ones poking around in the dark to see what works, because it allows indie companies to watch for patterns, listen to the ire of fans, and hear from merchants as to what junk is being returned to distributors because no one wants to touch it. It may not even be a worry to smaller labels as to what format is poised to win, but rather, ‘What pattern is favourable to us so that we can test the waters without losing money and satisfy the target audience we also need to treat with respect.’

The HD editions of Blade Runner do that, but the leap collectors and fans have to make to gain the complete release on standard DVD is, well, kind of insulting, because you wonder if a year later, or 5 years later for some unnecessary anniversary edition, whether that fifth disc will come out again. (It is a perfect way to purge warehouses of unsold and overrun copies…)

Way back in 1999, when Warner Bros. released The Exorcist in a 25th Anniversary Special Edition, the film was treated to tiered editions because the studio wasn’t quite sure what would work between established VHS collectors, and what type of fan was part of the new DVD consumer body. So you had the single VHS edition; a limited boxed VHS edition with an extract from a making-of doc, plus a CD, lobby cards, a book, and senitype; and the DVD release in a snapper case, with the disc containing a commentary track and the full making-of doc.

If the DVD was aimed at collectors, why were some of those extras ferried to VHS?

Well, the 2000 DVD replaced the 1997 barebones DVD, which was authored with the 5.1 mix on the full screen side of the disc. (Whoops.) The VHS editions obviously disappeared into oblivion, although the goodies from the limited VHS box were apparently ported over (repackaged?) in a DVD Collector’s Set in 2001.

Then the theatrical cut was deleted soon after the expanded & clumsily branded The Version You’ve Never Seen (aka the Whiny Writer’s Cut, or The Version Friedkin Said Wasn’t Necessary A Year Ago Until Scruples Became Optional) was released in 2000. That became the de facto edition until a recent anthological set in 2006 timed to the DVD release of the cruddy prequel films brought the theatrical cut back from Revisionist Purgatory.

If this all seems petty, well, in part it is, but it’s also example of how some movies are kicked around, suffer through patently ridiculous incarnations, and are awkwardly handled when there’s greed, and when the studios are hedging bets because they really don’t know what will happen when new formats are being sold in the midst of fickle consumers – and that latter possibility is what’ll make fans a bit more cynical and mistrustful of the labels than they already are, though I think we’ve already reached a limit, and have our noses shoved against the plaster ceiling at this stage.

Way back among the first DVD releases, a few smart producers decided to put out a handful of definitive edition for that time, figuring a two-tiered edition was just wasteful; DVD was the elite format over VHS and laserdisc, so why offer anything less than the best? Blade Runner is admittedly an exception due to the various incarnations since its release, but studios and indie labels ought to rethink a release strategy when you can count the versions on two hands.

Part of the problem is due to the demise of VHS and laserdisc, and standard DVD being less affected by the massive quality jump it offered over those obsolete formats; even under the shadow of HD, standard DVD remains an affordable and attractive choice for the average consumer & heavy collector.

Keep the available options to consumers simple and fair, and (almost) everyone will be happy. Loose your way between the transition towards the next dominant video format, and in the case of The Exorcist, we'll have to endure a dum-dum: two film versions spread over six editions on two home video formats within three years (1997-2000)... a faint echo of the five film versions spread over seven editions on three formats that are on shelves now.


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A grisly celebration of the other white meat

“I sing like Bowie, and slice with glee.”Perhaps still intrigued with musicals after directing the animated The Corpse Bride with Helena Bonham Carter and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp, director Tim Burton reunited with the top two players from his personal stock company and crafted this vivid film version of the 1979 stage musical, which had Stephen Sondheim set music and lyrics to Christopher Bond’s prior revamping of the classic penny dreadful pulp tale about a barber named Sweeney Todd who cuts the throats of men innocently wanting the removal of their five o’clock shadows, and Mrs. Lovett, a thoughtful baker who sought to reduce Todd’s carbon footprints by redirecting the cadavers into a successful line of meat pies.

Depp’s rendition of Todd is a delicious fusion using Beethoven’s physical posture – including Ludwig’s maniacal hair – and the low vocal style of David Bowie, with Depp waving, fondling and singing odes to his fine set of silver-handled straight razors, hidden by Mrs. Lovett when the evil Judge Turpin had Todd wrongfully convicted, raped his wife, and raised their daughter Johanna as his personal ward until she reached an age appropriate for a socially inappropriate marriage.

Alan Rickman frequently conjures the beloved spirit of Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, particularly in scenes wherein he admonishes the young green-eared Anthony Hope (Todd’s seaman friend) for ogling Johanna, and when Turpin sentences a repeat offender to death, quite indifferent as to whether the pre-teen was guilty of the crime.

Playing the judge as a well-traveled man with his own collection of dirty foreign art, Rickman, like Depp, also sings his lyrics with just the right amount of contempt for mankind, plus his burgeoning love for teenage Johanna in an exquisite duet that has Turpin and Todd almost bonding as vengeful men while each conspires to commit his own cruel fantasy.

Had Todd been able to slice Turpin’s neck so early into the story, the film would've been over too early, so it’s only natural the barber’s scheme is foiled by a subplot that sets in motion a number of cruel ironies revealed in the film’s final scene.

Overall, it’s a tragic tale of pitch black revenge, and the filmmakers don’t shy away from any violence. The first victim, a pompous, pseudo-Italian barber named Signor Adolfo Pirellli, is the first to be drained of his blood when the character’s blackmail scheme is cut short by Todd’s straight razor. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) almost chews the scenery as the egocentric twit, sewn into his blue satin toreador costume, and sporting a nasty ironed-down part that ends with rolling pin hair curls just above the ears.

Todd’s repurposing of his old barber chair also gives director Burton free license to indulge in myriad throat-slittings, jugular sprays, and a sly victim disposal system that’s accomplished in grisly detail by tilting back the chair, and tossing the half-dead fool down a chute, where he lands on the head and awaits Mrs. Lovett’s industrial meat grinder. The Dolby Digital mix nicely supports these Frank Tashlin-styled montages with neck cracks and cranial thuds, and Burton flips to several differing angles, sometimes giving us a glimpse of a victim’s frozen, shocked visage, laced with a wee bit of embarrassment.

The gore, bloody sprays, and subtext of adults relishing inappropriate buggery are neither indulged in nor softened, ensuring this film version of the Sondheim musical is aimed squarely at adults. Just as surprising are several jabs at Victorian corruption, which has Pirelli’s abused assistant drink a few pints of gin as a sleep aid – something the boy learned while growing up in an orphanage. The deaths are memorable, and a moment of vengeful immolation is beautifully detailed to enhance the rage that’s completely corrupted the soul of a particular character.

Sondheim’s vicious lyrics are supported by some buoyant scenes, particularly the grisly duet that has Todd and Mrs. Lovett fantasizing whether the use of a priest, lawyer, or local fop would spice up the revamped meat pies. The duet, like most of the musical numbers, glide between short bits of connective dialogue, and Burton is surprisingly restrained in his technique; with the exception of a fast-moving montage that ratchets the editing tempo, Burton uses tight framing, and frequently indulges in massive, intimate close-ups, recalling early thirties and forties melodramas.

The sets and cinematography are angled towards evoking an acid-washed view of an effluent-encrusted London, and the use of digital effects is more ambient, with some brief city views resembling three-dimensional theatrical silk screens over which the camera glides.

One could argue there are perhaps a few too many murders that slow down the pacing, but the star of the film is clearly Stephen Sondheim’s music, which propels the sad saga of a barber gone bad, and the woman, who for one shining period in her career, baked meat pies to die for.

Fans of the Sweeney Todd legacy can also check out several DVD releases, including the BBC’s 2006 version of the stage musical starring Ray Winstone and Essie Davis; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a 1982 taping of the Los Angeles performance starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury; a 2001 taping with George Hearn and Patti LuPone; and a rare 1936 British film version of the penny dreadful tale starring the appropriately named Tod Slaughter, and Stella Rho.

And if you’re in Toronto, there’s also a new touring production that’s coming to the end of its two-month run at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Dec. 9th, starring David Hess and Judy Kaye.

If none of those sate, then go buy some meat pies, have a Cornish pasty, or indulge in a tortierre with some ale.

This revue was made possible through an advance screening courtesy of Paramount, and Rue Morgue magazine, held at The Queensway Theatre, Dec. 6, 2007, on a bloody cold night in T.O.

- Copyright 2007 by Mark R. Hasan (KQEK.com)

Moving from Depp to sexploitation and smut, we've uploaded another trio of DVD reviews:

- The Sexploiters, another beautifully produced release from Retro-Seduction Cinema, a label that dearly loves the nutty, dirty B-movies they've been saving from oblivion in clean transfers and extras that place each film within the historical context of the sexploitation genre.

- Hideout in the Sun, also from retro-Seduction, with 2 versions (full screen and widescreen) of Doris Wishman's feature film debut, with oodles of extras to contextualize this nudie-noir (probably the only time that term will ever be applied to a film).

- Vintage Erotica Anno 1960, the latest volume in Cult Epics' excellent series of vintage dirty movies (well, they are!) once meant for elite parlours and collectors. Anno 1960 was probably aimed at the average connoisseur, and would've been screened in more mundane locales, like Jim and Susan Westwater's basement, after the kids have gone to sleep, Peaches the cat was locked in the kitchen, and the in-laws were on vacation in Florida. Sporting 12 meaty shorts, a stills gallery, and a bonus short from the 1940s, this new volume is available separately and as part of the Vintage Erotica Collection, gathering Anno's 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, and 1960 together.


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Un mélange de styles distincts

Yes, those gams are realDuring the eighties, Luc Besson was part of France’s latest crop of New Wave filmmakers. Known as a writer/director/producer who embraced beauty of the widescreen frame in his dialogue-free, black & white post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat (1983), Besson introduced us to a spike-haired Christopher Lambert in the oddball underground action comedy Subway (1985), constructed a hypnotic, frustrating fantasy-drama about free-diving in Le Grand bleu / The Big Blue (1988), and earned his first real critical acclaim with his inimitable hitwoman drama, La Femme Nikita (1990).

The American remake of Nikita, Point of No Return (1993) signaled Besson’s shift as a more executive-oriented filmmaker who sanctioned remakes, sold rights for TV series, and began to focus more on franchises and sequels instead of doing what he did best: write and direct offbeat films peppered with kinetic action, or make comedies that are some of the closest attempts to craft live-action versions of classic Warner Bros. cartoons. The Fifth Element (1998) remains Besson’s best and most satisfying animation tribute, yet it also symbolizes his increasingly rare forays as director.

After The Messenger (1999), Besson’s uneven Joan of Arc epic, the director took off six years before returning to directing, and when Angel-A appeared in North America, the film seemed to disappear after a short North American run – perhaps an indication, and perhaps more typical of this continent, that if your name doesn’t make annual headlines, it becomes a classic case of out of sight, out of mind.

Of course, whether co-produced and released in Europe by longtime studio partner Columbia or 20th Century-Fox, a lot of the films Besson has produced, written, or conceived stories for have either gone straight to video, or never crossed the Atlantic ocean in spite of being available in Asia and England on DVD with English subtitles and occasional English dub tracks.

Interestingly, the strangest example of this abandonment occurred early in his career. Atlantis, Besson’s underwater home movie/oceanic documentary, made right after Femme Nikita in 1991, more or less went straight to video in North America in 2003; the only way (at least in Canada) the film could be seen prior to its DVD release (which has since gone out of print) was to catch a badly panned & scanned mono broadcast on TVO, or Quebec’s TFO.

(The soundtrack album of Eric Serra’s Atlantis score was available on CD around the time of the film’s theatrical release, which may have been a contractual obligation by Virgin, since the label distributed Serra’s Big Blue score on LP and CD – itself an ironic move, given the composer’s music was dumped from that film after Besson’s 168 min. cut was edited down to 118 mins. for North America, with a new Bill Conti score that has yet to receive a commercial release.)

A more likely reason that many of Besson’s films have yet to breach the North American market comes from a perception that people don’t like reading subtitles, and in the case of remakes, legal agreements. That’s probably what’s kept Besson’s Taxi films from appearing as Region 1 editions with English subtitle tracks (although French-only widescreen versions of Taxis 1-4 are available through Canada’s Quebec-based Christal Films).

It’s unfortunate, given the first film is a buoyant little jaunt, and furthered the careers of its three main actors – Samy Naceri, Frédéric Diefenthal, and Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose) – as popular French cinema stars, but it’s hardly a new scenario. Claude Zidi’s La Totale! has yet to receive a Region 1 release, although the American remake, James Cameron’s True Lies, is very much in print on DVD.

(One major advantage to living in a bilingual country like Canada is the fact Quebec stations and home video distributors sometimes show films unavailable anywhere else on the continent. Albeit without subtitles, La Totale! pops up on TV once in a while, and Besson’s 168 min. version of The Big Blue was seen when the French language Pay TV station picked up the rights years before the current Region 1 DVD, and before a VHS PAL tape that provided an English subtitled version to British fans.)

Besson’s Angel-A may also have been theatrically marginalized because unlike his subsequent directorial effort, the family-friendly animated tale Arthur and the Minimoys / Arthur et les Minimoys (2006), the little romantic comedy was in black & white, and had actors unfamiliar to North America, so it was given a quick art house release before gliding onto DVD.

While not an epic and free from massive gunfights, explosions, and aliens, it’s an unusually personable film from Besson, and shows him in good form, focusing on a handful of characters, as in his first film, Le dernier combat. Shorn of the need to evoke franchise elements, it’s amiable fluff whose only major flaw is a dreadfully maudlin final reel, as further examined in our DVD review.

Also new to the website are reviews of Live Free or Die Hard, the latest and surprisingly fun installment in the Die Hard franchise, released on regular DVD with full R-rated swearing not present during its theatrical run; and a long & retentive assessment of I Know Who Killed Me, one of the most ineptly conceived and executed serial killer thrillers in recent years, and whose laughable twist ending may transform this Lindsay Lohan mess into a good bad movie favourite on home video.

We’ve also added another pair of long reviews for Mario Bava’s lone sex comedy, Four Times That Night / Quante volte... quella notte (1972), and comedy western, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack / Roy Colt e Winchester Jack (1970), both available in new & improved transfers as part of the Mario Bava Collection Vol. 2, from Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment.

Imminent are soundtrack reviews, arty smut, an interview with composer Elia Cmiral, and the new 3-disc Evil Dead set.

Yes, you’re going to have to buy it again.


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