A Few More Soundtracks (Dark, and Light)

Just uploaded are a trio of new releases from the major studios:

- The Dark Knight (Warner Sunset/Warner Bros.), proving the collaboration between Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard in Batman Begins wasn't a fluke.

- Swing Vote (Hollywood), featuring a quartet of John Debney cues in this songs-and-score downloadable album.

- Meet Dave (Varese Sarabande), offering a surprisingly light and amusing comedy/adventure score from John Debney.

Coming next: early Michael Powell from MPI!

And imminent: Paul Jones on film – The Committee (from MVD Visual) and Peter Watkins’ Privilege (from Project X / New Yorker Films), and a few more soundtracks.


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Zak Penn’s Double-Mockery

Anchor Bay/Starz’ release of The Grand marks Zak Penn’s second directorial effort, wherein the filmmaker shifts into Christopher Guest terrain and has a large cast improvising characters and scenes in a fairly straightforward narrative about six finalists in a wealthy Las Vegas poker tournament.

Does it work? That depends on one’s love of poker, improv comedy, and interest in very idiosyncratic characters. The toughest test for any filmmaker exploiting a very specific sport or activity or discipline is whether non-fans can get into the drama; pleasing all fans is an impossible goal, but crafting a film that anyone who knows zilch about poker can enjoy is the big question.

The same could also be said of Incident at Loch Ness (Twentieth Century-Fox), Penn’s satire of Hollywood egos (and his directorial debut). If you know zilch about filmmaking, will a mockumentary about capturing a quest to catch Nessie the Loch Ness monster on film entice?

Both films are steeped with nuances and very annoying characters whose quirks have the potential to turn off viewers, or grab them because of the mounting idiocies, although in the case of The Grand, it all ends well for every one simply because of good sportsmanship and the support network each character maintains.

They’re also grounded in some way, which is a marked contrast to the characters in Loch Ness who pretty much experience the opposite journey: instead of combatants walking away with a sense of self pride and accomplishment, it’s the supportive family atmosphere that brings together similarly disparate, passionate souls, but is totally lost by the final reel, leaving director Werner Herzog dismayed, and befuddled (although hardly broken in spirit).

Penn’s collaboration with Herzog on Loch Ness paid off extremely well, but it’s also a movie about a fake movie within a fake movie, and few straight dramas about moviemaking work because they’re often saccharine and forced to rely on painful melodrama. I know some are citing Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night as the high point, but it’s manipulative and very reverent towards the bonding and mini-dramas on a film set.

Perhaps that’s why satires can dig so deep and feel more real: sometimes the passion is too grandiose; instead of actors doing the honorable thing and sacrificing everything for the Film, it’s more about honoring the contract so a nightmare production is over and done with.

In The Grand, it’s about what the actors brought to their characters than any insight about poker, whereas Incident at Loch Ness contains a lot of subtext about the filmmaking process, and how, when in the hands of commercial makers, the documentary genre is more about entertaining than informing – particularly when it involves some snouted monster called Nessie.

Coming next: more soundtracks, reviews of more early Michael Powell from MPI.

And imminent: Paul Jones on film – The Committee (MVD Visual) and Peter Watkins’ Privilege (Project X / New Yorker Films) - and the paparazzi under the microscope in Diana: The Witness in the Tunnel (Anchor Bay/Starz).


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Saul Bass on DVD

If you didn’t see Saul Bass’ Phase IV (his lone feature-length film) when it was released by Paramount in 1974, you probably caught the film on TV, and remember one very stark and very weird image: some guy in some weird underground bunker watching a hand rise out from sand, and lots and lots of ants. The ants actually preceded that shot, but the two are firmly tied together in the minds of affected (and now grown-up) kids, and they're the main images kids (like me) recall from a strangely hypnotic film that pretty much disappeared from home video after a short VHS release.

Like The Possession of Joel Delaney, Mandingo (and the upcoming Hurricane), Phase IV is finally available on DVD via Legend Films, and in addition to a review of this DVD, we’ve added reviews of Bass’ other films that place this iconic title and graphic designer/director Bass in context: Bass on Film (1977), where the designer talks shop with clips from some of his most famous main title designs; and Why Man Creates (1968), for which he won as Oscar.

If the name Saul Bass draws a great big blank, please check out the Wikipedia entry, as well as the British Design Museum entry for samples of logos and film clips you’ll certainly recognize.

Coming next: reviews of Zak Penn’s The Grand (2007) and Incident at Loch Ness, and more soundtrack reviews.

And imminent: Paul Jones on film – The Committee (from MVD Visual) and Peter Watkins’ Privilege (from Project X / New Yorker Video) - as well as rare Michael Powell, courtesy of MPI.


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Andrew Lockington's 3-D Journey

This has been a bit of a busy week, so rather than have one big Editor’s Blog, I’ve chosen to break things up according to subjects, and keep editorial blatherings tied to specific subjects. (Which I think makes sense, right?)

First up is an interview with Andrew Lockington, with whom I last corresponded around 2001 soon after speaking to the people behind the stellar Robert Evans documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture. The original article appeared in Music from the Movies (which you can read via scans for Pages ONE, TWO, and THREE), and threaded together separate interviews with co-directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, as well as composer Jeff Danna.

Around that time I emailed Lockington regarding the song “What’ll I Do?” the gorgeous Irving Berlin tune sung by William Atherton for The Great Gatsby (which Evans produced in 1974), as orchestrated by the late, great Nelson Riddle. (If you’re not familiar with his work, he was an exceptionally refined composer/arranger/orchestrator who had superb taste in shaping songs to suite not only the strengths of singers like Frank Sinatra, but rework them in ways the original composers never figured would work.)

In any event, at that time my record collection was quite big, and I had a copy of the original 2-LP soundtrack set release by Paramount on their standard crappy vinyl (often filled with bubbles and bits of paper from garbaggio/reconstituted vinyl). I emailed Lockington – then orchestrating Danna’s score - so he could match the orchestration, because the directors had cut scenes to fit that version, and Danna’s gorgeous music made use of the song at key points because it really is the unofficial Robert Evans Life Theme. (If you’ve seen the film – which I urge if you haven’t – you know how it fits the narrative.)

Fast forward 7 years, and Lockington has landed the plum position as composer of New Line’s Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. Rather than bathe the film in bombast, he composed a startling, retro-eighties orchestral score that’s one of my most cherished scores of the year. In addition to the album review (available as a downloadable MP3 album from New Line Records in North America, and as a CD and MP3 album from Silva Screen in Europe), we’ve also got an interview with Lockington, covering his background, scoring 3D, and his latest projects.

I have a great deal of fondness for 3-D (not the eyeball pain from Polaroid glasses, but nostalgia for the format), and we’ll have some upcoming reviews of rare and lesser-known 3-D films on DVD, VHS, and a few oddball formats. (I wish David Buttolph’s great score – in stereo! – for House of Wax (1953) would get a CD release, but that’s a gripe for a future blog.)

Also added is a CD review of Trevor Rabin’s Get Smart score. Rabin’s best known for his rather bombastic action scores (Bad Boys, Armageddon) but Varese Sarabande’s new CD reveals Rabin does indeed have a sense of humour, and knows how to have fun with a very simple (and repetitive) TV theme.

Coming next: reviews of Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974), Why Man Creates (1968), and Bass on Titles (1977).

And imminent: reviews of Zak Penn’s The Grand (2007) and Incident at Loch Ness.


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Forgotten TV

Save me from oblivion!Just uploaded is a CD review of Evening Primrose, Stephen Sondheim’s score for a rarely-seen musical horror/drama that aired in 1966 as part of ABC’s Studio 67 series. To add some context to the music, we’ve also got an interview with Bruce Kimmel, whose Kritzerland label released the album (limited to 3000 copies).

Based on John Collier’s 1951 short story about a poet who hides in a large department store to write, the 50 min. musical was shot on colour videotape, although what’s available to view (namely at New York City’s Museum of Television & Radio) is a black & white kinescope (essentially a 16mm copy filmed off a monitor). That's what fans of live TV from the fifties expect, but not of a 1966 TV series from a period from which many programs are still shown in syndication, or are occasionally released on DVD.

1966 isn’t all that long ago. One would think the ephemeral nature of shows – particularly those with prestige and cultural value - was less severe at that time, but even the makers of Gilligan’s Island never realized the potential income that could be earned when a show went into syndication and impressed an endless stream of young TV watchers (and future DVD buyers).

Studio 67 had too few episodes for a syndication package, although had the network show died today, it could’ve been repeated on secondary venus like Bravo or Showcase, or any of the specialty cable channels that have, to some extent, exploited and rescued material previously growing dust in distributor vaults.

Examples include Bravo airing old episodes of CBC Telescope (featuring interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, and covering the premiere of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) and the PBS series Golden Age of Television (featuring rare kinescopes of teleplays like Marty, The Days of Wine and Roses, Patterns, and Requiem for a Heavyweight - episodes we'll actually review in due time).

The most obvious stance is that there ought to be some preservation for the junk, the culturally noble, and the mainstream hits; that’s a given. It’s appalling that material broadcast 40 years ago has disappeared, but what about the glut of present-day shows?

Network failures like Surface, Invasion, Earth 2, and CBC's MVP: Secret Lives of Hockey Wives are now on DVD, and people who taped material off TV decades ago have also made their personal collections available through DVD-Rs, file-sharing, and YouTube. You can find the Star Wars Holiday Special out there, or more infamously, pilots for Bionic Woman and The Sarah Connor Chronicles prior to the reshoots and recasting that upgraded the eventually broadcast pilots.

Thirty to forty years ago, there was just the TV airwaves to catch repeats of shows, and perhaps educational and rare distribution venues for winnowed TV product using formats like ¾” U-Matic, 16mm and perhaps 8mm film, and nothing else.

What we have to draw from today are what came out commercially on now-obsolete home video formats (VHS, Beta), material taped by consumers or the few in possession of industrial videotape recorders (U-Matic), internet venues, and current home video formats.

We basically have an excess of product: what’s popular for the moment; what studio and network labels deem of note; what’s rare and sought-after by rabid fans or amateur archivists; and ‘classic’ shows that will be of less interest as fans age, die off, and traces of those shows disappear from the most popular venues (if not pop culture at large).

Grim? Maybe, and maybe not.

Undoubtedly a percentage of what’s neat and popular now will be regarded as indulgent 20 years from now, and maybe 40 years later people will groan and wonder why something like reality TV (the biggest oxymoron around) was the rage, and maybe its untold hours of vapid programming will simply disappear in vaults, save for best-of anthologies documenting the trend.

The question are plenty:

Will those hours of junk, the culturally noble, and the mainstream hits will be available for the few remaining keen fans, or for archival purposes for historians and researchers?

Will they be relegated to museums because of complex music and film rights?

Wll there eventually be a ‘fair use’ allowance for online usage, whether through subscription or mere registration?

Can one download a low-res copy for research, or will one have to visit foreign cities to see and hear a now-rare production?

Evening Primrose is somewhat available online, and one easy venue is (unsurprisingly) YouTube, consisting of an extract of the exquisite duet, “Take Me to the World.”

That still means the full episode is still locked up, and as with many other rarities, DVD and CD producers are well familiar of several common reasons why something idling on a shelf or in a vault isn’t being exploited in any way: the rights holder is tough to find, the right holder is greedy, the rights are held by several parties with their own interpretations of legal ownership, or perhaps there’s some sense of embarrassment on the part of the creator or rights holder that’s preventing a show from going anywhere beyond a cardboard box.

If it’s an emotional issue for the rights holder, that’s something that can occasionally be solved through a producer’s patience and gentle persistence. If it’s greed, it’s just perplexing to think the owner would prefer to earn nothing off a property and allow the passage of time to render it culturally inert.

If no one knows it exists, is it really being missed, and of significance anymore?

And if it’s released long after a generation’s interest has subsided, will the market interest be so reduced that a commercial release just isn’t worth the legal and manufacturing costs for the owner?

Evening Primrose is symptomatic of what happens when popular art disappears, and/or is entangled in rights issues its creators never envisioned. Besides visiting a museum, one can also wait until the copyright has run out, and then maybe a particular production can emerge on home video (provided DVD still exists, what, 30 to 40 years from now?), but are these options reasonable when the patrons of a production or series lose interest?

I've no idea what the solution is, but there has to be a way with which fans can enjoy art (plus populist crap), and scholars, journalists, and researchers have greater resources at hand through some fair use system.

If a program is reduced to a low-res video file, it's neither broadcast quality nor has any commercial value. It's literally of archival or reference value, and little else. This isn't a railing against the flawed copyright amendments proposed by the current Conservative regime (read HERE for some clear analysis), nor a poke at the extension some counties have made to the expiration of copyright after the previously standard 50 years.

This is straight concern that if rights holders maintain apathy towards art they own, or demand unreasonable fees for something they know is esoteric, or figure sitting on something long enough might increase demand, they're delusional. Even marginalized art is still art, but when it moves from popular to niche market, you, the rights holder, have blown your chance for enriching a nation's culture.

Think about it.

Next : soundtrack reviews.

And imminent: two films by Saul Bass – Phase IV (1974) from Legend Films, and Why Man Creates (1968) from Pyramid Media.


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A Daniel Waters Double-Bill

Way back when I was in university (never mind which one – I don’t’ want the Alumni Donation Squad banging on my door day and night for cash), word sort of got around class that some nutty, darkly funny teen comedy was in theatres, so a small group of us attended a screening and I think most were blown away by the film’s coal black humour, and its now-politically wrong finale involving a vengeful teen, a gun, and some C4.

Some raved about Heathers, while I distinctly recall one classmate found the whole film revolting, if not godawful. The film was barely released, and I think the only venue we could find was the Carlton, which offered slightly bigger screens than the old rear-projection screens that were crammed into the now long-gone Eaton Center Cineplex (the world's first multiplex theatre); the Carlton (I think) used real projectors, but neither the picture quality nor sound nor hard plastic seats were memorable.

What’s amusing about this recollection is how our little group was part of the odd demographic that warmed up to the film and helped spread interest prior to and during its home video release. Or said differently, college and university students who knew in second year that all the angst for things thought important in high school – cliques, clothes, personal style, whatever - was basically bullshit.

Although, maybe film students were a bit different.

Some lived in res, many off-campus or at home, and maybe because of the program’s shrinking class size (due to low mark cut-offs, and some career changes after first year) there weren’t enough students to carry over any dumb cliques. Our class was also a mix of very different cultures and persuasions, and since you needed to work together on projects and rely on competent people, it made no sense to be an ass when a vital grade or passing a course was at stake.

Our class was also very funny, so it was hard to really hate anyone who was as broke, tired, hooked on caffeine, or sharing the same contempt for the film program as yourself. We did have our share of eccentrics, and I’ll stand by Urban Legends: The Final Cut as being a colourful, strangely accurate depiction of the class’ most extreme egotists. (“A crane is not a toy," quoth one.)

When the TV Production program was killed without warning, several students were bilked into taking courses they loathed to complete B.A. degree requirements, and when one friend discovered he’d been led astray into taking a lot of unnecessary courses, a strong desire to blow up the campus’ biggest and ugliest building (among many ugly-of-uglies) kind of seethed, although I asked the friend to hold off until I graduated, since I already owed OSAP a few grand in student loans.

Said friend never did follow through on the threat, but he did a lot of grumbling when I asked him to videotape the graduation ceremonies, and film me shaking the precious hand of a cultural legend. I was grateful for the favour, but I know my dear friend had the urge to at least stick a few firecrackers, sparklers or stink bombs under the doors of the film program pencil pushers, bean counters, and senile wankers (which maybe some deserved).

The above illustrates the one major shift that happens when one moves from high school to college/university: in place of cliques, one must confront bureaucracies, and while the machinations and overall nastiness of bureaucracies are, like cliques, pure bullshit, you realize after graduating that pinheads, pencil-pushers, bean counters, and wankers working the system are and will forever gum up your best intentions in life (a problem the bureaucratic-heavy Romans never managed to solve, either).

Heathers deals with one specific period – high school – but it’s an experience shared in whole or part by most people; it only takes a year or two in high school, or even in junior high school, to get a sampling of the nightmare that lies ahead. It’s universal, and that’s why the film will continue to be a known title for another generation, and maybe a few more. It’s also the anti-John Hughes film, and offers fans of teen films (specifically those from the eighties, like Pretty in Pink) an alternative to the syrupy affections and moral lessons that closed those movies.

In the 2008 interview featurette included with Anchor Bay’s new 2-disc Heathers 20th High School Reunion Edition, the filmmakers are aware Heathers was made in a time when one could satirize high school life by poking at teen suicide, shootings, and explosive teen rage, but I think one can still make equally vicious satires – just independently, and not exactly like Heathers, because its combination of a perfect script, an instinctive director, and a marvelous cast that can’t and shouldn’t be replicated.

Waters’ script raised the bar very high, and it should be something creators of future high school satires aspire to reaching, but not xeroxing.

The cast and filmmakers of Heathers managed to establish their own unique careers in the coming years, but writer Waters kind of fell off the radar after 1993, and hasn’t made many films in the intervening years. There’s Happy Campers (2001), and Sex and Death 101 (2007), the latter also released in tandem with Heathers since it’s one way Waters’ second film as writer and director won’t get lost on the rental shelves.

It’s an absurd and satirical poke at sex comedies, and halfway through the brilliant Bambi and Thumper sequence, I remembered Waters co-wrote Demotion Man, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and Hudson Hawk; not one them’s a classic, but each has a few choice streams of dialogue that are painfully funny, and bits of ridiculousness that thankfully the producers kept in the film. Sex and Death 101 is all Waters, and there’s a lot for Heathers and/or Waters fans to relish.

Next: soundtrack reviews, including Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose, with a related interview on this very rare work now available on CD.

And imminent: two films by Saul Bass – Phase IV (1974) from Legend Films, and Why Man Creates (1968) from Pyramid Media.


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Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg on DVD – Part 1

The release of Slogan (1969) from Cult Epics hasn’t gotten all that much attention, which is a bit of a shame because even though director Pierre Grimblat seems to have been inspired by Richard Lester’s own self-referential pop culture/media satires (think A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in terms of Lester's editing and his mix of docu and fashion-styled visuals), in Slogan Grimblat employed some very ingenious stylistic ideas that are very contemporary. I don’t think it’s too nutty to say the reason films like Crank (2006) are easily digested is because we’ve grown accustomed to the repetition of once daring filmmaking techniques.

Example: there’s no need to show a character entering an elevator, riding with him to his stop, and following him to the front door of his lover on the 10th floor; it’s already accepted that when he enters the building’s front door, we can cut from the front door slamming shut to the elevator doors snapping open on the 10th floor (or even his knuckles rapping on her apartment door) because we’ve already made that narrative leap in our minds due to the years we’ve been trained to make visual, aural, and narrative jumps from a faster editing style in films, TV, and music videos.

Slogan isn’t any different because director Grimblat junks a lot of foreplay, pretty chatter, and prolonged emotional reactions one would find in an Antonioni film, and cuts down a couple’s liaison to the main bits: they meet, they find each other hot, they try and make a go of things, and the idyll starts to disintegration. Our imagination fills in the rough edges around the jump cuts.

That isn’t to say this is the best way to tell a story; sometimes a slower pace and fine details, as in Jacques Deray’s La Piscine / The Swimming Pool (1969), can intensify hidden emotions by emphasizing the seemingly banal, but Slogan works (well, almost) because the romance is clichéd, and the director satirizes it while sparing us the most indulgent excesses of a married man boffing a young girl, leaving his wife, and realizing things ain’t so great anymore.

Slogan is also notable as the film where French singer/poet/composer Serge Gainsbourg fell in love with Britisher Jane Birkin, after which they made several films together, plus a few custom-tailored songs and albums.

So in light of the release and our reviews of Slogan and La Piscine (the latter part of the Alain Delon Collection from Lionsgate / Maple), we’ve also uploaded the second Birkin-Gainsbourg film, André Cayatte’s Chemins de Katmandou, Les / Overdose / The Pleasure Pit / Dirty Dolls in Katmandu (1969), as well as an episode of Legende, where director Philippe Labro documents Gainsbourg's tormented existence using a rich array of archival musical performances, film clips, and interviews with the two women in Gainsbourg’s life, Birkin herself, and model Bambou.

(We’ll eventually offer another wave of Birkin-Gainsbourg films for Part 2, but hopefully these reviews will shine a bit of attention on a pair of remarkable/flawed works currently on DVD, and a pair of films deserving their own DVD releases.)

Next DVD reviews: a Daniel Waters double-bill: the new Anniversary Edition of Heathers (1989) and Sex and Death 101 (2007), both from Anchor Bay / Starz.

And imminent: soundtrack reviews, including Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose, with a related interview on this very rare work now on CD.


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Jazz in July

Just uploaded are a pair of DVD reviews featuring Gil Scott-Heron, a poet, singer, composer, and musician whose filmed performances are extremely few and far between.

His style has been cited as pre-rap, his lyrics – depending on one’s political persuasion – are bleeding Liberal, or spot-on to the ills that have plagued the U.S. government over successful presidencies. What’s surprising is how a number of his songs, like “Winter in America,” remain topical in spite of being more than 25-30 years old – good for the artist, unfortunate for the social activist who hoped verse through popular, kinetic music would create some major changes.

If one sets aside the politics (which is admittedly tough, since Scott-Heron’s lyrics are so direct and unambiguous), one can also recognize some truly skilled musicianship from the many bandmates that appear in Robert Mugge’s 1982 documentary/concert film, Black Wax (available from Fox Lorber), and Scott-Heron’s 2-hour concert at the New Morning club in Paris, filmed in 2001 (inakustic / MVD Visual).

Mugge, who recently made the superb New Orleans Music in Exile (Starz Home Entertainment), again lets the subject's words and music tell the story and propel the narrative, whereas the New Morning concert is a straight jam session featuring Scott-Heron and three veterans of the Amnesia Express: percussionists Larry MacDonald and Tony Duncanson, and bassist Robert Gordon.

It’s all good music, and the New Morning concert is particularly welcome because a few songs were showcased in MVD Visual’s excellent 2-disc tribute, New Morning 25th Anniversary (1981-2006).

Next: Legend, Philippe Labro’s documentary on Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Slogan (1969) from Cult Epics, Gainsbourg and Birkin in Les chemins de Katmandou (1969), and Jane Birkin, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in La Piscine / The Swimming Pool (1969) from Lionsgate / Maple. (I think this is called doing 2 degrees of Gainsbourg.)

And imminent: a Daniel Waters double-bill: the new Anniversary Edition of Heathers (1989), and Sex and Death 101 (2007), both from Anchor Bay / Starz.


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B I G (and small) Westerns

Before I blather forthwith, warm wishes to our American readers for a Happy 4th of July. We just finished flag waving and consuming beer and BBQ'd goodies on July 1st, and now it's your turn!

For most film fans, this is perhaps a lesser-known fact: from 1929-1931, the major Hollywood studios had their eyes on developing their own proprietary wide film format as they next evolutionary step in big screen entertainment, but by 1931, just a scant handful of films had been shot, of which very few enjoyed much exhibition, if any at all. It took about 21 years before widescreen films came back (via Cinerama and CinemaScope), mostly thanks to the threat of TV and its free delivery of content, and its own emerging star system.

Studio bigwig William Fox was behind his studio’s Grandeur format, which delivered a ratio of 2.13:1 (just a smidge smaller than our current 2.35:1 standard), and after testing the widescreen waters with Movietone newsreels and the variety film Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, the studio turned to fiction and shot Happy Days, Song o’ My Heart, and The Big Trail in 1930. A year later, Grandeur, like UA’s Magnifilm, Warner Bros.’ Vitascope, and MGM’s Realife, was dead.


The cost of having just switched over to sound film exhibition was one reason theatre owners weren’t happy with the new technology (just imagine the utterly improbable situation in being snookered into having bought hardware and software for a new format that dies in less than 2 years); the came the stock market crash, and Fox’ debts killed the company's fortunes. (The Fox Film Corporation, as a studio, merged in 1935 with Twentieth Century Pictures, becoming Twentieth Century-Fox.)

The few widescreen films produced during that short run were filmed in both 70mm and 35mm versions (practically tripling the film stock costs for a single movie), and they were exhibited in very, very few major city centers due to so few converted movie palaces. Even stranger, some 70mm films were only released in 35mm, like Fox’ Song o’ My Heart, and Warner Bros.’ A Soldier’s Plaything (both 1930).

What’s amazing is that any vestiges of this wave actually survived through corporate mergers, corporate apathy, and the perils of decaying nitrate stock from bad storage, and with The Big Trail’s release as a 2-disc special edition from Fox, the total films from that blip of Hollywood’s first flirtation with commercial widescreen filmmaking now on home video amount to 2 – which may seem like nothing to jump up and down about, but if you read our review of The Big Trail, you’ll get a better idea as to why this film matters so much today, and is far more impressive than The Bat Whispers (1930), UA’s only Magnifilm production that applied 65mm film stock for a creaky, stage-bound mystery with very primal sound recording techniques.

The Big Trail was a big budget pioneer western shot on location in several desert locations in 70mm, and in 35mm for separate English, German, Italian, and Spanish versions.

It also marked the starring debut of John Wayne as John Wayne, after the actor had done the rounds in uncredited bit parts during the twenties in silent and primal sound films.

To contrast the scope, characters, clichés, racial stereotypes, and melodramatic conventions at the decade’s beginning, we’ve added a review of MGM’s pioneer epic Cimarron (1931) from Warner Home Video, as well The Painted Desert (1931) from Westlake Entertainment - another primitive sound film that marked the speaking debut of future icon Clark Gable.

Next DVD reviews: MVD Visual’s Gil Scott-Heron concert DVD, plus a rare documentary.

And imminent: Legend, Philippe Labro’s documentary on Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Slogan (1969) from Cult Epics, and Jane Birkin, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in La Piscine / The Swimming Pool (1969) from Lionsgate / Maple, PLUS more soundtrack reviews.


Happy Canada Day / The Omen (1976) on Blu-Ray

July 1st means two things up here:

1) Happy Canada Day!

2) Where the heck did June go?

This isn’t even a reference to the weird spring we’ve been having in T.O. (although complaining/obsessing over the weather may well be more Canadian than hockey, hence our ability to craft the Ultimate Weather System Gizmo for NASA's current Mars polar mission); spring’s long done, summer’s in progress, and July is basically the midpoint that precedes the season’s hot and humid denouement prior to TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival), the end of which signals summer is over, and fall has just begun.

Translation: enjoy the season, because if you thought June was fast, Just Wait.

On a different front, The Digital Bits reported June 27th that Fox will be releasing the original 1976 Omen on Blu-Ray as a single release and as part of a boxed set, replicating extras on the standard DVD versions, plus a few new goodies, including Jerry Goldsmith’s isolated score for the 1976 film (a feature originally on the special edition laserdisc, but consistently left off every DVD release), plus a new a commentary track with Jeff Bond, Nick Redman, and Lem Dobbs (the latter billed as a co-historian, which is funny, because I swear in another life he wrote Kafka, Dark City, and The Limey).

SRP for The Omen (1976) will be $39.98, and the mega-box $129.98. The boxed set will apparently contain The Omen, Damien: Omen II, The Final Conflict, and the utterly unnecessary 2006 remake – but there’s no mention of the Omen IV TV movie (awful as it is) released in the 2006 standard DVD boxed set, which means if it's been left out (What? Not enough SPACE on any of the Blu-Ray discs?), then you’ll have to hold onto the current boxed set (which itself replaced an older boxed set, reviewed HERE and HERE), or wait until there's the Ultimate Omen Anniversary Super Apocalypse Limited Edition).

This of course begs one to ask whether the announced new set is worth buying on Blu-Ray, because it’s not complete, and is much more expensive. The current 6-disc Omen set retails for less than $39; why pay $129?

Moreover, there’s the issue of the two sequels and whether these will be new transfers, or the same ones ported over from the standard DVDs.

Like the original Omen, Damien: Omen II was originally in mono and could use a true 5.1 mix, but while Final Conflict was released in 2.0 Surround, the current DVD sports the same faulty Pro Logic mix that cuts into plain stereo during Goldsmith’s most vibrant cue, The Fox Hunt. (Just play the preceding scenes in Pro Logic, and when the Fox Hunt sequence begins, you’ll notice the audio isn’t being properly decoded. It's a flaw that was present on the old laserdisc, and really, REALLY should be fixed if the Blu-Ray set is to have any merit.)

Lastly, the real missing link in the Omen series is the TV pilot which barely anyone's seen, and would make for a great bonus, since it hasn't been rebroadcast since its one-time airing in 1995.

End point: unless Omens 2 and 3 will be robust new transfers with more dynamic audio mixes, you're probably better off getting the Blu-Ray for Omen 1, and spending your savings on the current 6-disc set which you can upconvert using a capable player. Studios need to understand the jump to a new format must be affordable, much in the way Warner Bros. priced their Blade Runner 5-disc Blu-Ray edition just a smidge above the 4-disc standard DVD release. Sure, it's one film, but the Omen films are back catalogue titles, and $129 is pretty steep if there's nothing new in each of the boxed titles.

The DigitalBits also reports The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood are coming out in standard DVD mega-sets with some new bonus content, as well as The Flinstones and Batman: The Animated Series.

There's also four utterly unnecessary boxed sets with trinkets no one really needs: JFK (you’d think Oliver Stone would be satisfied with multiple releases in general, after his badly rendered Alexander epic came out in 3 separate DVD versions within about 12 months), 300 (more artwork and a lenticular hologram that also functions as paperweight), A Christmas Story (with cookie cutters?), and I am Legend (featuring the featurettes we knew the studio made but left off the 2-disc edition).

The studios have a lot of planning to get right over the next few months...

Oh, and Happy Canada Day!

Next DVD reviews: westerns with grand aspirations: Fox’ The Big Trail in Grandeur (1930 widescreen!), MGM’s melodramatic racist mush Cimarron (1931), and Westlake Entertainment’s The Painted Desert (1931), a very low budget oater notable for Clark Gable’s sound film debut.

And imminent: MVD Visual’s Gil Scott-Heron concert DVD, plus a rare documentary.


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