Occult Shockers

Unlike the prior batch of Films to Die For in Maple/Lionsgate’s horror fest series, this year’s crop (available separately or in a boxed set) has been selected with better care, and seems to offer some refreshing and appropriately disturbing takes on worn genres.

In the realm of the occult, Zev Berman’s Borderland (2007) takes the core scenario of two college goofballs trying to save their missing buddy from a gang of drug smugglers bent on a blood sacrifice to ensure their marijuana ‘invisibly’ passes through the Mexican-U.S. border. Inspired by the gruesome Matamoros cult killings unearthed in 1989, it’s an old-school production shot on film, in 2.35:1, with gross practical effects from KNB Effects Group and apparently not one drop of CGI blood.

If one can separate its two pivotal bouts of torture porn (which is hard to do, since they’re integral to the plot), Borderland is very effective in conveying an awful sense of doom, and is worth a peek if you can get through the opening sequence.

Flip back 35 years, and we get another occult film that’s perhaps best-remembered by fans who either caught The Possession of Joel Delaney during its original 1972 theatrical release, or on TV late at night, and never forgot the weird docu-drama tone applied to the story of a good little brother possessed by the raging spirit of a serial killer.

The violence is very minimal but unsettling for its grotesqueness, and Shirley MacLaine gives a strong performance as Joel's domineering sister who eventually realizes the brother she loves is being smothered by a bloodthirsty fiend.

If you can survive the film’s truly noxious production style (bad hair, ugly d├ęcor, and wardrobe leftover from some aborted pimp musical), it’s a nifty late night chiller that spends time building worthwhile character bits before poor Perry King loses his mind and assaults his family.

Delaney is part of several rare Paramount-distributed titles now premiering on DVD via Legend Films, and fans will be delighted to know the film is a clean anamorphic widescreen transfer.

Coming next: the cinema of Olivier Smolders, Belgium’s poetic David Lynch.

And imminent: The Outsider, a new documentary on maverick writer/director James Toback, and Running with Arnold, Dan Cox’ doc on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ascension to Governor of California.


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The Many Lives of Painkiller Jane

Painkiller Jane - Tougher than Sweating BulletsWhen I asked a pair of avid readers of graphic novels, anime and comic books how much they knew about Painkiller Jane, both had to pause for a moment before recalling the character’s appearance in a Punisher issue they’d read a while back, but that’s where their familiarity ended.

To some, she’s a minor footnote character who’s crossed over into a handful of series, whereas others might regard the rebellious, roguish, self-healing vigilante babe as an underused, neglected anti-heroine deserving a bigger spotlight after going through two re-imaginings on the Sci-Fi Channel, each differing significantly from the other, as well as Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada’s original conception.

First came the 2005 TV movie with Emmanuelle Vaugier, which served as a pilot for an unrealized TV series. When the full-season show was finally realized, it began to air in April of 2007, with Kristanna Loken as Painkiller Jane. 22 episodes later, the series wasn’t renewed for a second season, and the reaction to the show was more than mixed.

A few websites have reviewed the new Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment boxed set and cited some common and achingly obvious flaws that upset fans as well as those willing to stick with the series for its full season, but I think the set actually offers more than another failed series.

There are boxed sets of full seasons of cancelled shows that are outstanding, if not unique examples of television writing, directing, and construction; and there’s also mundane, predictable, uber-formulaic crap released by labels that truly boggles the mind as why seasons of singularly generic shows like Hardcastle and McCormick, Riptide, or Street Justice must exist on DVD when far better shows languish in storage.

(‘Crap’ is used most subjectively here, and without any apologies. One person’s cult favourite is another’s rabbit rubbish, and there’s no doubt some of my own favourites can emit a noxious odor if left outside in the sun. I will stand by my position in branding Street Justice as outright crap because mixers at the audio post-production house involved with the production once described how whole lines of dialogue were often re-looped to cover up mouthfuls of incoherent plot twists in what was and shall forever be another bad local show branded with an international face, made purely for the export market.)

Painkiller Jane isn’t art nor the apex of small screen creativity; it’s not very good, and some might argue its massive flaws make it a painful (whoops) endeavor in no uncertain terms.

Here’s a slightly different take (and one we’ll apply to planned examinations of the wretched Bionic Woman and supremely banal Private Practice series): without getting too snooty, we’ve written up respective comparison reviews between the 2005 pilot and the 2007 TV series, with nods to the basic elements in the comic book, to address changes each team of writers thought would work to make the character more mainstream, more accessible, and less controversial to the average TV viewer.

Fans would rightly argue that the only way to be faithful to a character is to be faithful (duh), and expand on the themes and those intriguing gray areas that work for the character. But if the heroine is too violent, too selfish, too sexual, and maintains an existence that seems to wallow in the social detritus of sadistic crooks, how can one take a sordid, underwritten character, and construct a successful series using the most potent qualities within the framework of a recognizable format?

Painkiller Jane could work as a powerful one-off theatrical film, but fans know what happens when bad directors and hack writers take a concept and murder it with their own arrogance, deciding what works better than what a characters’ creators envisioned.

So check out our long and windy review of the 2007 series (Anchor Bay/Starz) and the 2005 pilot/TV movie (currently unavailable on DVD). It’s easy to cite flaws in a port-mortem, but sometimes it takes the death of another show to remind producers that a series needs a consistent vision with its own bible of character dos, don’ts, and story arcs.

Who knows – Maybe someone’s actually listening.

Coming next: two occult thrillers – The Possession of Joel Delaney from Legend, and Borderland (2008) from Maple/Lionsgate.

And imminent: the cinema of Olivier Smolders, Belgium’s poetic David Lynch.


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Unwanted TV: Ill-conceived Pilots

A new crime fighting force in The Omen walks off into TV pilot oblivion...After the massive success of E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), TV, as it always does, aimed to cash-in on a less epic, more episodic version of the friendly child-like alien visitor concept, and one effort was Wishman (1983), a pilot that ran, if memory serves correct, some time in the summer when all kinds of pilots are occasionally given a spot on the blah TV schedule.

Now, I may be one of two people who actually watched this aborted launch that featured Joseph Bottoms, Linda Hamilton, and a little humanoid alien (uh, little person in an unconvincing suit with robotic face mask) that night, and aside from the alien moppet’s generally inexpressive visage, I remember some final shot that had the ‘parents’ walking with the alien ‘child’ hand-in-hand during a sunset or sunrise.

The real question here isn’t ‘How could anyone make something so dopey and believe it would run as a show?’ but rather why did the network believe airing a one hour, one-off with no fanfare or advance publicity would give it any chance of success among reruns of favourite shows? If no one knows it’s coming, then no one will see it.

Prior to the internet, the success of a TV series mandated a show air in a regular timeslot to ensure viewer habits would eventually embrace that show, and make it a part of a weekly routine. Even if a show was videotaped and watched later on, the timer setting alone was part of the viewing protocol; break that up by delays, rescheduling, preemptions, or a network hiatus decree, and the show had an excellent chance of disappearing from anyone's personal schedule, and would ultimately die.

Networks knew this, and it was one tool they could discretely use to kill a series they didn’t want for any variety of reasons.

So let’s get back to the main question again: How could a pilot like Wishman possibly catch any potential fans when no one knew it existed?

It couldn’t, and that was and still remains a serious flaw in the antiquated system still being practiced by the aging networks. A one-off has little chance of succeeding, which meant Wishman never had a chance at achieving anything beyond a committed airdate; it was just a plaster blob meant to fill a small whole in the prime time grid that week.

This isn’t unique to pilots, however. When a network loses faith in a complete series – as CTV did with Invasion (2005) – they dump their broadcast commitment on days barely anyone watches. About halfway through the show’s run, CTV decided to blow off their accumulated episodes on Sundays, sometimes showing several episodes in a row to end the run. The U.S. network had already signaled its displeasure with the series, and with renewal for a second season out of the question, CTV got rid of its dead weight by filling in some scheduling holes so newer stuff could take over the old Invasion time slot. (I think the resulting crud was the Idol franchise, but I could be mistaken.)

A more apocryphal example is Black Tie Affair, a short-run, half-hour comedy series from Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show, The Days and Nights of Mollie Dodd) that was given coverage by Entertainment Tonight (mostly because star Kate Capshaw was In, and was Mrs. Steven Spielberg). The pilot aired once, and about two episodes were blown off a few days later after midnight on Canada’s Global TV to fill in late night holes. No chance of any success.

Now, what if a network did give us a head’s up? If the pilot blew blue donkeys and both its filmmakers and the network knew they had a turkey, would it have a chance at success if it was treated like a mini-event, particularly if it was branded with a moniker from a recognizable franchise?

Case #1: The Omen (1995)

Back in the seventies, Fox’ own answer to Warner Bros.’ The Exorcist (1973) was The Omen (1976), about a cuckoo child of Satan raised by a diplomat and his wife. Its success begat Damien: Omen II (1978), which had the now orphaned teen raised by his uncle. Fox then tried again with The Final Conflict (1981) with Damien Thorn now a multinational CEO who becomes America’s latest ambassador to England, a position through which he and his lieutenants seek to halt the arrival of the Nazarene. Then came Omen IV: The Awakening (1991), a clumsy, often laughable TV movie that had little adopted Delia mucking up the bliss of her own politically prominent parents. It was the first effort to drift from the franchise’s established characters, and neither of its two directors could make sense of Brian Taggert’s script.

So why try for a TV series?

Well, it’s hard to say, but there are a number of possible scenarios: efforts to conceive a series for a new Damien Thorn couldn’t be worked out into a full season of adventures, so the writers simply borrowed from what was in vogue at that time: weird phenomena; further interest in the battle between religious good and Satanic evil dried out when Taggert scripted Child of Darkness, Child of Light the same year as Omen IV, with similarly bland results; a devil child as an anti-hero might have offended audiences or potential sponsors; or a proposal to create a variation of Fox’ X Files, completely unrelated to the Omen franchise, was given the Omen branding to give it a fighting chance among the many new series debuting that month.

I remember seeing the pilot listed in the TV guide, thought ‘Huh?’ and made a point to catch it out of curiosity – and was shocked to see what a mess poor Jack Sholder had had to direct; he’s a good director (just watch The Hidden) whose career has mostly been mired in mediocre and derivative productions of little note.

Unsurprisingly, The Omen TV series went no further than the pilot, and disappeared as though it never existed, although clips apparently appeared in a one-off TV special, The Best TV Shows That Never Were (2004).

We’ve reviewed the pilot in detail HERE, but the lessons its makers hopefully learned are pretty simple: don’t cheat viewers with unrelated goods; and networks should allow filmmakers to create longer pilots if it massively aids in the creation of compelling characters and conflicts.

Case #2: Justice League of America (1997)

Giving filmmakers room to develop their concepts can be a good thing, but when the concept is so massively wrong, you have to wonder if the writers of this live action version of the Justice League of America [JLA] ever had any doubts, or simply didn’t care.

Maybe they were hired guns whose job was to follow the ridiculous requests of the producers, much in the way the director had to realize each scene in spite of the film’s paltry budget, but when CBS saw the idiocy before them, they wisely killed the pilot’s chances of ever reaching public airwaves.

Enter rumoured overseas airings, comic conventions sales, eBay auctions, and YouTube postings, and this misanthropic mess managed to break free from the graveyard of failed TV pilots and still lives, albeit as a collectable curio.

Other people have written about this pilot, but for more info, you’ll have to check our review of JLA 1997 HERE.

We'll have periodic reviews of other TV oddities throughout the year, but in the coming months we’ll also take a look at shows that were either conceived as limited run series, or were axed before they had a chance to reach a audience.

Coming next: a lengthy examination of Painkiller Jane, the 2007 TV series starring Kristanna Loken, plus the prior 2005 pilot that starred Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane.

And imminent: two occult thrillers – The Possession of Joel Delaney, and Borderland (2008).


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Jazz in May - Part 1

Probably the least surprising aspect of Lalo Schifrin’s career is that he’s still composing and performing around the globe, whereas one can’t help but be awed by his unwavering coolness as a great composer, particularly in jazz and film, and the quality of his work from the seventies, when he was fusing all kinds of concepts for the Dirty Harry series.

It wasn’t intended to be a series, but clearly the climate of the time seemed right for an anti-hero who meted out his own brand of justice on crooks and scumbags, in spite of choosing to remain under the thumb of an increasingly aggravated police department. That conflict of style, morals, and energy was present in Schifrin’s Dirty Harry scores, and we’re pairing a review of Sudden Impact, released on CD in complete form by the composer’s Aleph Records, with a short interview with Schifrin himself, talking about his label, and his jazz fusion scores.

Also added is a CD review of Abominable, the 2005 bigfoot B-movie by son Ryan Schifrin. The elder composer delivered a rich, fun, and addictive score (also released by Aleph) for the goofy film, available on DVD from Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment (with new sleeve art), and which we reviewed HERE.

Lalo Schfrin’s also written music for Spooks, the comic book series co-created by Ryan Schifrin, of which samples can be heard at the Spooks website (more music is slated to be released on CD and via iTunes), and fans of the composer’s Bullitt score might want to check out the Hei$t videogame, which will feature music from the classic car chase film.

We’ve also reviewed two of Peter Calandra’s jazz scores, Jellysmoke (2005) and The Unknown Soldier (2004), double-billed on a new MP3 album and limited CD from MovieScore Media, and there's a long & windy review of Michael Legrand’s Le Mans (1971), released in France by Universal. That classic racing score is finally available without most of the ugly sound effects present on the old Columbia LP, and it's been paired with a lesser Legrand score, The Hunter (1980), which ended up being Steve McQueen’s cinematic swan song.

Lastly, back in 2007 we reviewed a wonderful 2-DVD tribute to Geneva's New Morning jazz club, and it seems the success of that set has resulted in the release of the complete 1994 concert with Randy Brecker and the Niels Lan Doky Trio. Running 97 mins., the DVD also contains a nice interview with ace trumpet player Brecker, and is available from Inakustik/MVD Visual.

Coming next: Bad TV Pilots that deserved to die a slow and painful death.

And imminent: Intriguing shows that tried to transcend some heavy conventions before succumbing to the Network Cancellation Axe.


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British Fluff

Hiccup!Although Martin Clunes (Doc Martin) headlines The Booze Cruise (non-alcoholic U.S. title: Cheers and Tears), the first of three popular ITV TV movies initially about four bickering neighbours who travel to France for le cheap booze, he shares equal room with costars Neil Pearson, Mark Benton, and Brian Murphy, who in turn dominate the last two installments before the series was exhausted in 2006.

The first is the most enjoyable and least affected by obvious scene padding, but those hooked on the first will undoubtedly want to follow the cast as they become involved in a treasure hunt in the second teleplay, and a trip to scatter ashes in the third and final misadventure.

People are rude, an old man unintentionally smokes pot, and the French are insulted. Toss in a pregnancy, cross-dressing, and the word “tit” sunburned on the head of a war veteran, and you have a sometimes insane mix of comedic elements that once in a while click for a good, hard laugh.

All three volumes are available in a three-pack (the best choice), and were released in the U.S. and the U.K. We’ve dug up the Region 2 ITV set, and reviewed all three puffy teleplays in our ongoing effort to catalogue All Things Clunes.

Coming next: Jazz DVDs, Jazz soundtracks, AND an interview with Lalo Schifrin!

And imminent: Bad TV Pilots that deserved to die a slow and painful death (but sadly didn't).


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The Fall of the Bronston Empire, Part 1

Roman boom-de-boom!There’s a moment when you’re listening to the commentary track for Samuel Bronston’s three-hour Fall of the Roman Empire and realize the two commentators, son Bill, and Bronston biographer/author Mel Martin, are losing a bit of their objectivity, and what began as a discussion of this one-of-a-kind monster has morphed into a historical revision of sorts, with the son and author warming up to the film’s pros – extraordinary set and costume design – and ignoring its cons – namely a derivative script with screeching melodrama, and some serious narrative jump cuts due to Paramount’s alleged snipping to make the film less political, less dry, and keep the focus on romance, action, and stars looking gorgeous.

Roman Empire is not a masterpiece nor maligned classic nor a gem waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a monster that ran out of control due to various internal issues between the producer, money men, creative financing, writers with unique personalities, and the inherent flaws of the historical epic genre, which in this case mandated spectacle; in the dying days of the historical epic, that meant replicating the grandeur of Rome by building the Roman Forum to scale.

Was it folly?

From a production value angle, hell no, and it’s to the credit of director Anthony Mann that he made the physical aspects balance with the actors; the sets don’t overwhelm performances, and one can argue the nervousness or intimidation the actors felt when doing scenes smack in the middle of such an immense set improved their performances.

When Lucilla (Sophia Loren) pushes her way through bloodthirsty crowds to reach lover Livius (Stephen Boyd), the sequence works, and when Emperor Commodus (Christopher Plummer) stands with glee at the peak of a jammed Forum, you know the actor really feels like a god surveying all the little people he controls with his mighty thumb.

Is it classic tragedy?

Sort of, and also on a modern level, if one regards the melodrama that surges in the film’s second half as a tragic, missed opportunity to transcend hot peaks of screeching bathos.

Is it the sixties equivalent of Heaven’s Gate?

Nope, because the four-hour film that killed United Artists stemmed from studio execs ooing and aahing pretty footage by an egomaniacal director (Michael Cimino), forgetting their responsabilities to the company and its shareholders, and repeatedly issuing further monies to fund an irresponsible production whose budget multiplied fivefold.

Fall didn’t singularly kill the Bronston empire, but it helped. It was a perfect storm of personnel and events and greed that doomed the studio, but there’s a handful of reasons why the film didn’t do grand box office business: as the commentators observe, after President Kennedy was shot, no one wanted to see a doom and gloom epic; and with Cleopatra making headlines, who wanted to see another bloated, antiquated monster that mandated sitting still for three hours?

The human popo can only remain parked for so long.

There’s something to be said about savvy Italian, French, and German producers whose co-productions of Hercules and those C-level knockoffs earned profits because the films were kept simple; it was a genre over-imitated and beaten to death, and the stories were by-the numbers, but they didn’t doom a studio or threaten its foundations in the way Roman Empire or Cleopatra did.

And yet you’ll never see anything like Roman Empire again, because every horse, costumed extra, wave of cavalry, city forum, and roofed set is real. And the producers and director smartly kept the film’s pacing even-handed, so audiences could Ooo and Aah again and again and again.

Roman Empire has actually been available on DVD in Asia and Europe for a few years (making the sleeve sticker “First Time On DVD” a bold-faced lie), but it never looked this good, nor came with any meaningful extras.

Fans of composer Dimitri Tiomkin will be equally pleased with this release, available as a 2-disc and 3-disc boxed set, because there’s a nice 20+ mins. featurette on the composer and his score, and the 5.1 really, really sounds good.

As you’ll read in our long and windy review of the film and every featurette (including details on the rare Encyclopedia Britannica shorts filmed in the Forum set before it was struck), this is the release to buy if you’re a fan of pre-CGI epics; it’s the benchmark in production design, and inspired Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) in more ways than you may have realized.

While the Canadian release distributed by Alliance-Atlantis is again slated to appear about a month after its U.S. counterpart (like El Cid, it’s probably to get the packaging and dual language art done), the Genius Products release is now out, and contains the same extras that’ll be present on the Canadian release.

The demand and anticipation for Roman Empire doesn’t seem to be as massive as for El Cid, but this is still an important film (whoops – I think I’m revisioning, too), and should ease worries that the rest of the Bronston catalogue might get held up for some evil reason.

55 Days at Peking is apparently next, and hopefully Circus World will close out 2008, but one hopes the producers at Genius Products (aka The Weinstein Company) will put more into the commentary tracks and learn a bit from Criterion in making the most of every available resource (read: go interview surviving cast members) while it’s still possible.

I’ve already said too much, so read the review which, like El Cid, contains smooshed colour header breakers to make it easier to separate each reviewed component.

Coming next: The Booze Cruise (aka Cheers and Tears) trilogy.

And imminent: Jazz DVDs, Jazz soundtracks, AND an interview with Lalo Schifrin!


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