The Copper Scroll of Mary Magdalene

Filmmaker Larry BuchananI recently posted in the new release section for Soundtracks news of Alex North’s Hard Contract score coming out on CD via Varese Sarabande in mid-July.

The folks at Varese, as with many labels, know there are several scores by noted composers that have been largely forgotten, mostly because those films have disappeared from circulation. (Hard Contract, incidentally, has been reportedly slated for an Aug. 21st screening on TCM – so keep the recorders ready.)

North was one of Hollywood’s greatest film composers – his best-known works are the jazzy Streetcar Named Desire (the stellar Brando version) as well as Spartacus (perhaps his greatest work, alongside Cleopatra) and the stunning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – and a good chunk of his work exists on CD, if not LP or DVD, but there’s one odd title that for a brief period popped up on the horizon in 2004, perplexed fans, and then disappeared: The Copper Scroll of Mary Magdalene (aka Rebel Jesus).

In 1968, North was working on his score for 2001: A Space Odyssey when director Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) opted for a classical pastiche, and although North would continue to score major films thereafter, the projects became fewer, ending with music for John Huston’s own swan song The Dead (1987), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), and The Last Butterfly (1991) – the latter being North’s final work.

During the early seventies, North scored a mixed bag of films that included A Dream of Kings (1969), Willard (1971), Shanks (1974), and Journey Into Fear (1975), but the oddest project was the docu-drama The Copper Scroll of Mary Magdalene by veteran exploitation and indie filmmaker Larry Buchanan (Mars Needs Women, Zontar: The Thing from Venus, and Goodbye, Norma Jean).

Buchanan had returned to this aborted 1972 film thirty years later, and was apparently in the process of finishing the film for a 2005 DVD release until the project apparently froze due to his sudden death in 2004.

The film’s website which trumpeted the ‘epic’ nature of the film is no longer extant, the announced DVD release and possible soundtrack album never happened, and the film, with a 2004 copyright, remains unseen. More importantly, Alex North’s score, recorded with a 70-piece orchestra, remains unheard and locked away, although a few details can be found in Michael McDonagh’s lengthy piece “Death and Resurrection -- Alex North's Last "Lost" Score” on the composer’s official website.

The film also gets some mere mentions in Mary Elizabeth Strunk’s essay on Buchanan’s The Other Side of Bonny and Clyde, and there’s an archived interview with the director at Bijou Flix. Buchanan also wrote an autobiography titled It Came from Hunger: Tales of a Cinema Schlockmeister, published in 1996 by McFarland Press. McFarland also published Sanya Shoilevska Henderson’s biography Alex North, Film Composer in 2003.

For Buchanan fans, it’s a huge disappointment that the director’s last major work remains unavailable, and for North’s admirers, it’s an epic score few have heard. One has to presume it’s a matter of legal issues that have kept the film on the shelf, and perhaps with time, it and North’s music will make its way into the commercial realm where it belongs.


A rigid little genre

Romantic comedies have been around since films began – one could argue the famous primordial film The Kiss (1896) essentially cut to the chase and had boy getting girl hard on the lips with some giggling – so perhaps it’s unfair to regard the genre with some cynicism.

The rom-com (a moniker I’ve never liked myself) is for the most part an enduring staple on theatre screens, but more so on rental shelves, where it sometimes flourishes and earns dividends for rental shops. Each month brings forth a Two Weeks Notice (2002) – a prime example of banal comedy with paint-by-numbers plotting that rented like gangbusters, and defied the critics not because it’s a classic, but because it’s easily digestible and inoffensive.

Even the term ‘chick flick’ is somewhat genderless now, because every one at some point will watch a romantic comedy because its formula is tied and true: whether its Hitch, Gabriela, Wedding Crashers, or whatever’s hot this month, the last act usually has the guy running to the girl, confessing his devotion after behaving like a colossal knob, a happy fadeout, and a chirpy (and utterly forgettable) song blasting over the end credits to help sell the disposable ‘music from and inspired by’ album.

(If you doubt the disposable nature of those albums, make sure to check out the film scores in delete bins, and you’ll find the lot mostly consists of song CDs no one wanted, and never will.)

The same formulaic template in which boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl remains in Michael Samonek’s twist on the genre, Table for Three (Anchor Bay/Starz), which kind of wobbles as a dark comedy by introducing an annoying couple into the life of a recently dumped groom-to-be.

The film doesn’t quite work, and perhaps Samonek’s failure to reconfigure the genre shows how some rules can muck up a decent premise if they’re fully respected (Hitch) rather that satirized (Wedding Crashers) if not trashed with glee.


Upcoming titles from Mya, Mr. Bongo, and Facets

Mya Communications returns with some new and old naughty Italian sexploitation gems, plus a few shockers.

Coming out June 30th is Edwige Fenech's 1972 film Ubalda: All Naked and Warm / Quel gran pezzo dell'Ubalda tutta nuda e tutta calda (reissued from the old NoShame catalogue), Gloria Guida's screen debut in Monika / La ragazzina (1974), Joe D'Amato's Horrible / aka Absurd / Rosso sangue (1981), and Sergio Martino's Island of the Fishermen / L'isola degli uomini pesce (1979), which was originally released in North America as the edited/reshot Screamers, but did enjoy an uncut release in Europe as a Region 2 DVD via NoShame.

July 28th brings Arizona Colt Returns / Arizona si scatenò... e li fece fuori tutti (1970), Sergio Martino's sequel to Arizona Colt (1966), and the 1986 film Devil in the Flesh (another reissued NoShame title).

On August 25th the label will release Lamberto Bava's TV movie Dinner with a Vampire / Brivido giallo - A cena col vampiro (1988), Pilar Velázquez in Italian Sex / Sesso in testa (1974), and Florinda Bolkan and Antonio Sabato in Mafia Connection / aka Black Lemons / E venne il giorno dei limoni neri (1970).

Also listed at a Mya blog are a pair of September titles: Lamberto Bava's 1987 film Until Death / Fino alla morte (released by NoShame as a Region 2 DVD), the efficiently titled Naked and Violent / America cosi nuda, cosi violenta (1970), and Lucifera: Demon Lover / L'Amante del demonio (1972).

And lastly of note is the Mr. Bongo Films re-release of The Saragossa Manuscript, previously available from Image Entertainment in 2001. The new DVD reportedly includes a stills gallery, but lacks extras that remain unique to the out of print Image DVD - an isolated music score, and extensive liner notes by Darren Gross. Mr. Bongo Films is a UK-based label and distributor that also carries additional art house titles, and Saragossa seems to be the first that's being handled in North American by Facets Multimedia.


Gender Bending on Celluloid

Just uploaded is Kevin Burns' documentary Ladies or Gentlemen (Anchor Bay/Starz), a brisk and entertaining work on cross-dressing in Hollywood films. Produced as part of the Starz Inside series, Burn's interviewed a number of actors (Tony Curtis, Tim Curry) as well as jovial directors John Landis and John Waters.

Featuring plenty of film clips, the doc also showcases actor Divine and bad movie director Ed Wood Jr., and features interviews with writers Camille Paglia and Michael Musto.


Fantastical Music

The latest quartet of soundtrack reviews are up, and include:

- Bear McCreary’s awesome score for the Battelstar Galactica prequel pilot (there’s a mouthful), Caprica (La-La Land Records)

- Stand By For Action: The Music of Barry Gray (Silva America), featuring theme and some short suites of dynamic fantasy and sci-fi music by the composer of Space: 1999

- The Star Trek Album (Silva America), with themes from all TV and feature film incarnations prior to the 2009 reboot

- James Newton Howard’s Defiance (Sony Classical), featuring violin contributions by Joshua Bell


Natural Fromage

What happens when sharks need more iron in their dietOne of the hardest goals is to make a B-film that actually works – something that actually transcends its very nature to fill a void on the video rental shelf, and earn a store owner few extra bucks.

The term B-movie actually stems from the era when studios owned and operated their own chain of movie theatres, and offered a whole program of material for theatre patrons. During the thirties and early forties, prior to TV, the easiest (and probably most value-added) way to get an audio-visual combo of news, sports, entertainment, and local announcements was in a movie house.

Some of Warner Bros.’ classic film DVDs – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), for example – offer a sampling of the kind of product people would see for maybe a dime. You’d sit in a cool auditorium and watch a newsreel, maybe a political announcement, a sports piece, a comedy short, a cartoon, and then the double-bill: the A-level film (big stars, high production values, and sometimes in blazing Technicolor), and the B-film (low budget, barely recognizable faces, a far shorter running time, and a story that usually stayed within the main parameters of a genre – western, crime thriller, comedy, etc.).

One function of the B-movie was to test out new talent and see if they could carry a film, check if an actor or actress had any real screen charisma, and were worth testing out in A-level productions; even Clint Eastwood popped up in a B-film (Universal’s 1955 thriller Revenge of the Creature) before moving into TV and later feature films.

The B-movie as product was eventually phased out by the studios, but indie producers filled void by making their own cheap or low budget films, which kept the double-bill format alive for a while, whereas newsreel died once TV became a more effective medium for audio-visual information, and cartoons as short bursts of kidfare moved into the Saturday morning arena.

I remember that by the mid-seventies, the occasional NFB short was still being shown Toronto theatres, as well as playing the national anthem short, but both disappeared by the eighties and were taken over by garbage ads and wads of trailers.

The B-movie did live on as drive-in fare, but once the drive-ins as a revenue source for indie producers went southward, that body of exploitation and sexploitation fodder – mostly from the seventies and early eighties – got some extra life when home video grew in popularity.

The B-movie occasionally made its way to major theatres as a knock-off horror or sequel, but it’s arguably because a few generations grew up watching those low-budget flicks (either vintage, fifties, or more contemporary exploitation) that the format returned as direct-to-video product, and like the B-portion of a double-bill, they also filled rental shelves and cable TV schedules so a renter or subscriber’s weekly choice looked full and rich.

The genre basics are still there: elements and predictable plot points remain, but by retreading and being restricted to limited budgets and having little desire to transcend the genre, most B-movies are completely disposable. Troma tried to make their newer product fashionable, but there’s a genuine difference between cinematic fromage that’s stale and uninspired, and finding something that’s clever, or at least fun, because the filmmakers focused and developed the right elements and made it all click.

The big budget remakes Amityville Horror (2005) and When a Stranger Calls (2006) are still a B-movies, but they chiefly suck because the scripts were written by minds less creative than an elephant with a chunky paintbrush and a sheet of paper; the films have gloss and some name actors, but no soul, no sense of fun, and no coherently plotted stories to make up for lesser performances or overly flashy direction. (Rare exceptions include the cheesy Eight Legged Freaks, and the visceral Rogue.)

Those latter qualities matter, and they can carry a movie if there clearly was not enough money for elaborate effects montages or longer money shots. That’s the case with Jack Perez’ ridiculously titled Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (Asylum Home Entertainment), which actually has a classique B-movie story as well as some hysterical sea creature attacks that defy gravity and natural instinct.

Lorenzo Lamas. Debbie- whoops, Deborah Gibson. Big shark. Giant octopus.

And it works. Read why.


Gran Torino: Men and Cars

Sweetheart's last day before being towed away for scrap metalThere’s a moment in the making-of featurette on Warner Bros.’ Gran Torino DVD where several of the film’s producers, the writer, and car historians try to explain the relationship people (men, mainly) have with cars, and while their personal anecdotes and theories don’t address the film’s serious dramatic flaws, there is one scene where the quiet joy people have for their machines is totally true to life; it’s a feeling that goes beyond pride of ownership.

Gran Torino is not about the iconic 1972 Ford bagnole nor muscle cars, but there is that behaviour where characters are fixated by the big shiny green car that Walt Kowalski washes, dries, waxes, polishes, and watches over protectively with his rifle. It’s something that may well be unique to the suburban lifestyle because it’s part of the weekend chores, particularly for dads.

A family friend had a brown 4-door 1973 Gran Torino he bought during his years with Ford Canada, and while the front of the machine was somewhat modified in 1974, the back was thickened and made even more muscular; it’s that version best known over the 1972/1973 ‘pinched back end,’ because the huskier 1974 version was the co-star of TV’s Starsky & Hutch – a big red monster with a white stripe running over the roof, fat wheels, and a roaring engine ideal for chasing down street scum.

The family friend eventually replaced the Torino with a Mercury Marquis in the early eighties – a period in car design that didn’t exactly offer us the best-looking bodies, because things eighties were often characterized by hard geometric angles, silver painted plastic, and square, blocky lights.

Around 1977 or 1978 my dad decided to trade in the rusting burgundy Dodge Coronet for a used 1971 Ford Thunderbird – a big green beast with a three-pronged front, sequential rear signal lights, and the misfortune of running on premium gas – a petrolium mix carried by far less gas stations, which was a pain when we went on long highway trips.

The T-bird – a dreamy name to many car aficionados – one day met a Toyota head-on, and while the Japanese car was completely totalled, the T-Bird’s front was mashed up a bit; it was still driveable, but even after the costly repairs, it never was the same. The engine rattled and the whole car shook before the engine properly shut off, and my dad reluctantly parted with the beast only when he got a sweet deal on an Audio 5000 S in 1980.

For 9 years that car was his pride, and much in the way Walt Kowalski babied that car, so did my father and the neighbouring dads. “Washing the car” was a three and a half hour endeavour because once somebody rolled out their car, fired up the garden hose, and got the suds flowing, a neighbour followed suit, and an aerial view of the street probably resembled a synchronized Turtle Wax commercial.

For Walt Kowalski, car washing is a private chore – mostly because he hates the neighbours with differing ethnic make-ups – but for the dads on my street, it was an excuse to chat by the fence, swap beers, and admire the transition as several dirty cars became all shiny and gleamy.

“Washing the car” is both a social thing as well as moment of personal quiet time, because the only focus is The Car, and it’s a human-machine bonding thing that’ll never go away. There’s a similar relationship with motorcyclists and probably cyclists, and even if the world goes electric, whatever mode of upscale transportation is being used – electric, solar, vegetable oil or specially trained gerbils – the vehicle will always be an extension of the driver or rider, and will be doted upon like a family member.

An old friend’s family named their 1975 Monte Carlo Ben, and their talking Chrysler New Yorker (“the door is AJAR!”) Abercrombie, whereas a friend and his wife affectionately call their vehicle The Bitch.

My late 1991 Honda Civic SE (see top pix) was dubbed Sweetheart and lived longer than expected (almost 17 years). I still think saying “Good morning, Sweetheart,” and “Goodnight” or “Thank you, Sweetheart” made the car live into twilight years because she was rusting to pieces (largely due to the TTC’s massive parking lot salting), and when the car died in late January, it was at a point when the body was near its end; the heart and brain (the engine) were still rock solid (typical for an old Honda), but everything else was turning into paper-thin metal (very typical for an old Honda, with badly designed wheel wells).

Each car is an extension of its owner, and maybe a car can represent a theme to a person’s life. For Walt Kowalski, the Gran Torino was a machine he helped build at the Ford plant, and unlike his sons, it remained unspoiled by Walt’s own difficult personality.

The Gran Torino also reflected his muscular physicality, and perhaps the car’s immaculate state – near-mint – was a tied to Walt’s stubbornness in refusing to change. In passing the car on to a new owner, his spirit lives on.

There is poetry in that, because sitting in the beloved car of someone’s who’s passed on isn’t the same as sitting in a rental vehicle. It’s part of a person’s being, and whether it’s a car, motorcycle or bike, that thing you clean and maintain and lock up at night in the garage is symbolic of its owner – the one reality the filmmakers of Gran Torino got right in an otherwise overrated, mediocre teleplay.


Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Just updated are the latest set of titles, Canadian street dates and prices (SRP's), including details on Disney's fall release of the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Posted in the Main Page's New Announcements section are details of the exclusive Blu-ray special features, as well as Canadian prices for the three choices of BR gift sets uber-fans have Oct. 6th.


Brass Candy

Boop-boop-a-doop!If one asked the average-average filmgoer (as opposed to the average, whose film diet probably omits most of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s spate of comedic dreck, which is a significant difference) questions about European cinema, there would probably be a blank stare, if not mere mentions of recent award-winning films or foreign films shared within the friend-family-marital realm. In other words: fairly bland, if not a safe taste for things uplifting, melodramatic, or pretty good – but not daring.

Now, daring doesn’t have to be naughty, but a bit of sixties/seventies political incorrectness never hurts, because sometimes within the confines of a once popular genre lie refreshing ideas that directors like Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright and Martin Scorsese have been screaming about for years – more so with the younger batch of directors whose work embraces the often risqué technique as well as human behaviour from the (mostly) exploitation sub-genres.

Again, that doesn’t have to include naughtiness, but sometimes a bit of rudeness spices up the obligatory elements directors had to acknowledge to keep paying audiences ducky.

That’s why a giallo deals with murder/mystery/incoherent plotting, spaghetti westerns combine a style of music/cinematography/cruelty/morality/Mediterranean tanned cow punchers and healthy Italian/Brazilian/French/German/Spanish babes, and the sex comedy deals with sex/mistaken behaviour and an acknowledgement that (mostly male) audiences are supposed to be wearing big, dumb, placid grins when an Edwige Fenech (or the real Fenech) displays her extraordinary ubaldishness, and moves with cat-like ubaldinastity.

The aforementioned directors are also well aware, and have blabbed on in recent documentaries and featurettes, of the technical and stylistic elements that make European cinema so amazing. This isn’t a rejection of other countries and their cinema heritage, but there’s a sharing of genres, actors, and warping of conventions between American, British, Italian and occasionally German thrillers, as well as sex comedies.

Candy (1968) was sort of a blending of elements, except it fell flat on its ass because of excess (style and running time), a wonky structure, lack of coherence, a vapid leading heroine, and the sadness of seeing a few great actors doing truly embarrassing things.

It’s sad when an award-winning actor is doing dreck for money (Cuba Gooding voluntarily made Daddy Day Camp for his family, so he doesn’t count), but then there’s seeing Richard Burton, barely a few years after making Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967), slurping up spilt alcohol from a glass-bottomed limo floor for what seems like an hour.

Is it funny? For a bit, and then it’s just painful.

Candy is not a good film and will never evolve into some underrated classic, but it has moments of arguable brilliance when the film camera, the actors, and editing capture the absurdity of Terry Southern’s outrageous writing style. He co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick Dr. Strangelove (1964), and wrote Barbarella (1967), and one gets traces of his insanity in Candy, as well as the best evocation of a Daffy Duck cartoon taken to its full narrative potential.

Anchor Bay released the DVD back in 2001, but it’s been out of print for a while now in Region 1 land, and the film needs a proper special edition. Historian commentary track, if not documentary, interviews, publicity archives, and a reassessment of what parts of Buck Henry’s film adaptation of Southern and Hoffenberg’s novel clicked.

The film was released by Cinerama Releasing Corporation, so perhaps like Bluebeard (1972), that dead company’s back catalogue is now handled by Lionsgate, a company known for good but perfunctory DVD releases of European classics, as well as superb special editions for recent American cult classics like Monster Squad (1987) and My Bloody Valentine (the original, not the poo-poo undie remake).

Someone should get cracking, seeing how Candy is now 40 years old.

Besides the overall train wreck appeal, part of that film’s notoriety is the casting of relative newcomer Ewa Aulin, a Swedish pastry who evolved from teen model to leading lady within a short period before leaving acting in 1973.

Aulin isn’t good in Candy, but then it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to bring depth to what’s basically Betty Boop as a blonde. Aulin as a mistress (Death Laid an Egg) or heroine work fine, and that’s where’ Deadly Sweet / Col cuore in gola (1967) comes in.

It’s her first real leading role prior to Candy, and more importantly, it’s part of a handful of ‘straight’ movies written, edited, and directed by Tinto Brass. The curiosity among his fans is what his non-smut film were like prior to Salon Kitty (1975), and if Deadly Sweet is a sampling of his pop art style, Brass was an impressive talent.

Before you click the “X” at the top of the tab and close this window, just read the review. It’s long and windy, but there’s a strong case to be made for a) what European directors brought to the British film industry during the booming swinging sixties period, and b) the sometimes experimental editing technique Brass employed in telling a story with a desire to balance genre conventions, be a bit satirical, political, and show a bit of skin now and then.

Part of the film’s success comes from the editing, and Brass says on the DVD commentary track (and it’s a good one) how he collaborated with Franco Arcalli, a great Italian cutter who worked with Antonioni, Bertolucci, Questi, and, uh, Brass.

Did Arcalli influence Brass’ editing technique? One film from his British period isn’t enough to say, but one film from this period shouldn’t be all that comes out on DVD.

Within his Brass’ C.V. there’s a short film, a spaghetti western, a drama, and two films with Vanessa Redgrave. Two films with British thespian royalty.

How is such a thing possible?

That’s where the mystery lies, and hopefully this marks the first DVD Brass’ British period that Cult Epics will exploit. Before Caligula (1980), there were more than asses in Brass’ career.

Deadly Sweet proves it.

Now you can click the “X.”

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