Early Technicolor: Part 2

In his immensely informative commentary track to The Black Pirate (1926), film historian Rudy Behlmer cites the cautious steps produce/co-writer/star Douglas Fairbanks took in making sure the new 2-strip Technicolor format was worth the cost and extra planning for his next film.

It was a still relatively new, sexy technology that could improve the filmmaking process by adding yet more creative options in designing a film’s look. The concept of shooting color for a gimmicky scene to give a film a value-added feature was commonplace – notably in musicals like Dixiana (1930), where the last reel presented the show-stopping sequence in 2-strip Technicolor – but making a complete feature in colour and pre-planning the cinematography to achieve a specific look was, as Behlmer explains, quite novel.

That isn’t to say the colour sequences in other films were basically point-and-shoot exercises where everyone hoped the footage would turn out okay. Technicolor looked good only if the costumes, the lighting, the paint on the walls, the hair colours, and the pencils in a desk jar were right.

(Examples of striking 2-strip Technicolor films include 1932’s Doctor X, and 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, and to get an idea of the process’ look, one need only watch the golfing sequence in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, where Katherine Hepburn does a round of golf with Howard Hughes.)

That’s why the company employed an elite group of consultants (Natalie Kalmus being the biggie) to ensure rules of what was known to work were followed; getting it wrong made things look funny, which is why some of the format’s early critics found Technicolor’s flesh tones seemed salmony, the colours were too hard on the eyes, and feared long-term exposure could yield unknown trauma(s).

This was apparently a serious concern, because there were critics / Luddites who felt audiences simply wouldn’t be able to handle colour. The switch from black & white to blazing Technicolor would be too much for the average moviegoer weaned on black & white movies.

The eye strain would be abominable. The headaches would come. Add sound to the mix, and Jesus, people would get sick and explode into human goo.

Even though there had already been three feature-length colour movies– Toll of the Sea (1922), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), and the first colour & sound feature, The Cavalier (1928) - this was a real concern for Fairbanks, so he consulted psychologists to see if colour moving pictures were really bad for the eyes and brain, and of course, the results showed people didn’t get heavy eye strain or headaches.

That proved colour was fine, but the next issue was the actual filming, developing and exhibition processes at hand. Without going into techno-babble, there are four types of colour film processes developed during Technicolor’s early years:

Process 1 (dubbed additive colour process) was used on a film called The Gulf Between (1916), and it involved the use of red and green filters and a prism beam-splitter in the camera. Because adjacent frames on a single strip of black & white film were exposed simultaneously, the film had to be photographed and projected at twice the normal speed.

The key problem? One also needed a two-aperture projector that played the film back at the same higher speed, and the combination of two lenses, filters, and a prism in the projector made it a chore to keep colour registration accurate.

What’s interesting about this method is its slight relation to William Friese-Greene’s Biocolour, a British system that used filters in the camera to expose each subsequent frame in either red or green using a shutter with attached colour filters. When making prints, the adjacent black & white frames were tinted red and green, and were shown using one projector.

The problem? The faster projection speed essentially relied on persistence of vision to make it appear one was seeing a single frame of colour film, but the end result was a flickering, strobe-like image that probably did give people headaches. (I’ll have more on this process shortly, via a wonderful BFI DVD set from Region 2 land called The Open Road.)

Process 2 (known as subtractive colour process) was the first version of 2-strip Technicolor, and consisted of a similar camera exposing two frames simultaneously with filters and the prism beam-splitter, except two strips of black & white film were exposed in the camera – one for the red, the other for the green. The stock was thinner because in the end the red and green film strips were sandwiched together to great a 2-colour master print.

When Fairbanks opted to shoot The Black Pirate in colour, it was Process 2 that was used, but Behlmer also cites more apocrypha in his commentary. The cameras exposed duplicate frames to create protection masters for foreign prints – which seems inventive, but obviously gobbled up an enormous amount of film stock. When exhibition prints were struck, the final results were thicker than standard black & white prints, and small bumps in a married print could cause the projected film to flutter, or worse.

Still, the movie was in colour, and that’s what Fairbanks used to thrill audiences with his zippy pirate movie. A restoration effort during the early seventies essentially rescued the film from oblivion, and not only brought the film back into circulation in colour, but ensured it was available for home video distribution (via laserdisc, and then DVD).

Eventually, Process 3 (a dye-transfer process) was introduced in 1928, eliminating the need to cement two halves to create one print. Process 3 is what RKO used for the last reel of Dixiana, a mish-mash of drama and music and spectacle set against the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

When 3-strip Technicolor debuted in 1934 via the animated Disney short Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees (1932) and the live-action short film La Cucaracha (1934), the process involved three strips of film exposed in a camera that were used to create a single strip exhibition print. Becky Sharp (1935) was the first feature film shot in the new process, and Foxfire (1955) was the last, when a single-strip camera negative became the new standard.

Tracking down on home video early 2-strip Technicolor films – either those with sequences or shot entirely in the process – isn’t easy because a number of these films have fallen into public domain. A few have appeared on major labels, while others are in budget sets whose source materials and transfer quality are a big question mark.

(Trying to find an accurate online list for the 2-strip films is also tough, although a 3-strip list exists HERE, and makes for an excellent reference guide.)

In the case of The Black Pirate, the Kino DVD is loaded with important extras, and while the film print is good, the transfer is vintage 1996, and the limitations are apparent, making this a film in serious need of a new HD transfer.

Dixiana and La Cucaracha were released on DVD by the Roan Group in 2000, but the disc is apparently out of print (though some distributors like Canada’s E1 may still have old stock). Neither film is ideally presented on the DVD, but Dixiana is uncut, and that final reel is indeed in 2-strip Technicolor.

La Cucaracha mandates restoration, and what really should be done (ahem: Criterion?) is solving the rights issues, securing extant sources and releasing the film in a set that includes the two other Pioneer Pictures that followed – Becky Sharp, and The Dancing Pirate (1936). Having them together would ensure continuity with the extra features, such as historical essays or commentary tracks, as well as any surviving archival art, reviews, and company history.

Just a suggestion.


And the 24th Annual Gemini Awards Nominees are...

This is a Gemini Award. See how bright and shiny it is?Announced early this week are the nominees for the 24th Annual Gemini Awards – that’s the TV award, as opposed to the Genies (which is FILM), and the Junos (which is MUSIC).

It’s all in the way it's pronounced to prevent confusion, right?

The full list of nominees and broadcast date is available at the official Gemni website
http://www.geminiawards.ca/gemini24/main.cfm, but I’ve listed a few main categories in which at least one nominated production is or will be released on DVD (composer nominees excepted), so the curious can plan accordingly, and/or use the nominations as a push to buy or rent some Cancon.

The awards ceremony in Calgary, Alberta, will be broadcast on November 17, 2009, on Global TV.


Best Children's or Youth Fiction Program or Series

Instant Star 4
(Epitome Pictures Inc.)
Linda Schuyler, David Lowe, Stephen Stohn, Stephanie Williams

The Latest Buzz
(Decode Entertainment Inc., DECODE/Buzz Productions Inc.)
Steven DeNure, Neil Court, Kevin May, Brent Piaskoski, Beth Stevenson

Life with Derek
(Shaftesbury Films Inc.)
Christina Jennings, Daphne Ballon, Jeff Biederman, Suzanne French, Scott Garvie, Laurie McLarty

Best Comedy Program or Series

Less Than Kind
(Breakthrough Films & Television, Buffalo Gal Pictures)
Phyllis Laing, Marvin Kaye, Ira Levy, Amy Marcella, Mark McKinney, Jan Peter Meyboom, Kirsten Scollie,
Chris Sheasgreen, Peter Williamson

Rick Mercer Report
(Island Edge Inc.)
Gerald Lunz, Rick Mercer

(Blueprint Entertainment)
John Morayniss, Suzanne Berger, Kenny Hotz, Amy Marcella, Michael Rosenberg, Jonathan Walker

This Hour Has 22 Minutes Series XVI
(Halifax Film, a DHX Media Company)
Michael Donovan, Mark Farrell, Jack Kellum, Susan MacDonald, Jenipher Ritchie

Three Chords from the Truth
(Henry Less Productions)
Henry Less, Steve Cochrane, Phyllis Ellis, Sissy Federer-Less, Adriana Maggs

Best Documentary Series

The Adventurers
(90th Parallel Film & Television Productions Ltd.)
Gordon Henderson, Michael Allder, Andrew Gregg

Ancestors in the Attic - Season III
(Primitive Entertainment Inc.)
Dugald Maudsley, Kristina McLaughlin, Michael McMahon

CBC News: The Lens
(CBC Television)
Andrew Johnson, Charlotte Odele, Catherine Olsen, Angelina Stokman

Survivorman Third Season
(Survivorman 3 Productions Inc.)
Les Stroud, David Brady

The View From Here
Jane Jankovic

Best Dramatic Mini-Series

Burn Up
(Seven 24 Films Inc., Kudos Film and Television)
Tom Cox, Stephen Garrett

(Sienna Films, Rough Cut Pictures Inc., Rough Productions Ltd., Love Reigns (Pty) Ltd.)
Jennifer Kawaja, Liz Jarvis, Phyllis Laing, Philo Pieterse, Julia Sereny, Carrie Stein, Simon Vaughan, Nick Witkowski

The Last Templar
(Templar Productions (Muse) Inc.)
Michael Prupas, Robert Halmi Sr., Robert Halmi, Jr., Irene Litinsky

(Prodigy Pictures, Cipango)
Jay Firestone, Thomas Anargyros, Edouard De Vesinne

Best Dramatic Series

Being Erica --- DVD due September 22, 2009 (Paradox)
(Temple Street Productions)
David Fortier, Aaron Martin, Ivan Schneeberg, Jana Sinyor

The Border
(White Pine Pictures)
Peter Raymont, David Barlow, Brian Dennis, Janet MacLean

Flashpoint --- DVD due October 13, 2009 (Kaboom)
Anne Marie La Traverse, Bill Mustos

The Tudors
(Peace Arch Television Ltd., PA Tudors II Inc., TM Productions)
Sheila Hockin, Morgan O'Sullivan

ZOS: Zone of Separation
(Whizbang Films, Sulari Productions Inc.)
Paul Gross, Mario Azzopardi, Malcolm MacRury, Andrea Raffaghello, Frank Siracusa

Best TV Movie

(Barna-Alper Productions Inc.)
Laszlo Barna, Steven Silver

Elijah --- DVD due October 20, 2009
(Anagram Pictures Inc., Eagle Vision (Manitoba))
Blake Corbet, Gigi Boyd, Kevin Eastwood, Christopher Leeson, Lisa Meeches, Mary Anne Waterhouse

In a World Created By a Drunken God
(Pyramid Productions Inc.)
Kirstie McLellan Day, Larry Day

Of Murder and Memory
(Thump Inc., Oasis International)
Ilana Frank, Semi Chellas, Daniel Iron, David Wellington

The Secret of the Nutcracker
(Joe Media Group Inc.)
Joe Novak, Matt Gillespie, Shirley Vercruysse

The Terrorist Next Door
(Sarrazin Couture Entertainment, Forum Films Inc.)
Pierre Sarrazin, Suzette Couture, Richard Lalonde, Susan Murdoch

Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary Program

Air India 182
(Withrow Road Pictures Inc.)
David York, Sturla Gunnarsson

bploi wai dtaai: Leave Her to Die
(Think Positive Productions)
Antonia Thomson, Sean Buckley

(Moondat Productions Inc.)
Kent Nason, Teresa MacInnes

Tiger Spirit
(Storyline Entertainment Inc.)
Ed Barreveld, Anita Lee, Min Sook Lee

Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma
(White Pine Pictures)
Peter Raymont, Silva Basmajian

Best Original Music for a Lifestyle/Practical Information or Reality Program or Series

David Burns - Design U - Bruno's Daughter's Bedroom

Serge Côté - A World of Wonders - The Amazon Rainforest

Ryan Kondrat, John LaMagna - Project Runway Canada - Return of the Supermodel

Gaz Mellen - The Decorating Adventures of Ambrose Price - Reclaiming

Michael O'Neill - French Food at Home II - French Food Desserts

Best Original Music Score for a Documentary Program or Series

Christopher Dedrick - Death or Canada

Christopher Dedrick - The Body Machine

Edmund Eagan - FLicKeR

Eric LeMoyne - Liberty, USA

Daniel Séguin - The Wild Horse Redemption

Best Original Music Score for a Dramatic Program, Mini-Series or TV Movie

Terry Frewer - Elijah

Jonathan Goldsmith - Burn Up

Adrian Johnston - Diamonds

Michael Richard Plowman - Impact

Ron Sures - Of Murder and Memory

Best Original Music Score for a Program or Series

Robert Carli - Murdoch Mysteries - Werewolves

Jody Colero, Lily Frost, Trevor Yuile - Being Erica - Dr. Tom

James Gelfand - Crusoe - The Return

Mark Korven - The Border - Floral Tribute

Ari Posner, Amin Bhatia - Flashpoint - Planets Aligned

Best Original Music Score for an Animated Program or Series

Serge Côté - Rollbots - Crontab Trouble

Paul Intson - Grossology - Swamp Gas

Brian Pickett, James Chapple, Graeme Cornies, David Kelly - World of Quest - The Crusades/ The Little Troll Down
the Lane

Michael Plowman - Jibber Jabber - "Race to the Red Planet"/ "Pride of Frankenstein"

John Welsman - My Friend Rabbit - For The Birds/Pearl's Pals

Best Writing in a Children's or Youth Program or Series

Jeff Biederman - Life with Derek - Just Friends

Richard Clark - Grossology - The New Recruits

Sean Jara - The Latest Buzz - The First Impressions Issue

Victor Nicolle, Sandy Flanagan, Dennis Heaton - Jibber Jabber - "Night of the Werewolf"/"Enter the Jelly"

Steven Westren - My Friend Rabbit - Frog On A Log

Best Writing in a Documentary Program or Series

Araz Artinian - The Genocide in Me

Robert Cornellier, Paul Carvalho - Black Wave The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez

Tracy Deer - Club Native

Sheona McDonald - Capturing a Short Life

Larry Weinstein, Harvey Sachs - Toscanini: In His Own Words

Best Writing in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series

Blake Corbet - Elijah

Donald Martin - Celine

Tony Marchant - Diverted

David Vainola - Diamonds

David Wolkove – XIII

Best Writing in a Dramatic Series

Mark Ellis, Stephanie Morgenstern - Flashpoint - Haunting the Barn

Michael Hirst - The Tudors - Episode 205

Floyd Kane - Soul - Fathers and Daughters

Lori Spring - Murdoch Mysteries - I, Murdoch

Brad Wright - Stargate Atlantis - The Shrine

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Series

David Alpay - The Tudors - Episode 207, Episode 209

Jonny Harris - Murdoch Mysteries - Big Murderer On Campus, Convalescence

Christopher Heyerdahl - Sanctuary - The Five, Revelations P2 --- DVD due September 15, 2009

Mpho Koaho - Soul - Seducing Spirits, Exile

Wes Williams - The Line - Episode 106, Episode 107

Best Performance by an Actor in a Guest Role, Dramatic Series

Damir Andrei - Being Erica - The Secret of Now

Nicholas Campbell - Flashpoint - Who's George?

Henry Czerny - Flashpoint - First In Line

Mpho Koaho - Flashpoint - Never Kissed A Girl

Ron Lea - Flashpoint - Haunting the Barn

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series

Trevor Duplessis - In a World Created By a Drunken God

Chenier Hundal - The Terrorist Next Door

Carlo Rota - Othello, The Tragedy of the Moor

David Suchet - Diverted

Bradley Whitford - Burn Up

Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role

Natalie Dormer - The Tudors - Episode 210

Amy Jo Johnson - Flashpoint - Planets Aligned

Erin Karpluk - Being Erica - Dr. Tom

Andrea Menard - Rabbit Fall - Hit and Run

Amanda Tapping - Sanctuary – Requiem

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series

Barbara Hershey - Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning

Tiio Horn - Moccasin Flats: Redemption

Louise Rose - Diamonds

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Series

Lolita Davidovich - ZOS: Zone of Separation - Bred in the Bone, The Laws

Catherine Disher - The Border - The Sweep, Unacceptable Risk

Tasha Lawrence - The Line - Episode 104, Episode 106

Gabrielle Miller - Robson Arms - Season III - Baby? What Baby? , Mean Girls

Reagan Pasternak - Being Erica - The Secret of Now, Such a Perfect Day

Best Performance by an Actress in a Guest Role, Dramatic Series

Daisy Beaumont - The Border - Floral Tribute

Kristin Booth - Flashpoint - Backwards Day

Sarah Gadon - Flashpoint - Attention Shoppers

Tatiana Maslany - Flashpoint - Planets Aligned

Anna Silk - Being Erica - Everything She Wants

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series

Judy Davis - Diamonds

Christine Ghawi - Celine

Joanne Kelly - Diamonds

Rachel Marcus - Booky's Crush

Chandra West - Of Murder and Memory



Next up are a pair of soundtrack reviews:

- Clinton Shorter’s District 9 (Sony), which can be pre-ordered via iTunes and Amazon.com as a MP3 album

- Trevor Jones’ Runaway Train (La-La Land Records), beautifully mastered in an expanded CD

Both scores are worth snapping up, but I’m compelled to focus here on Runaway Train simply because it’s part of some vintage eighties synth scores that deserve premieres, reissues, or expansions.

A lot of material from the eighties hasn’t aged too well, and that’s partially due to film producers who hired composers to write and perform scores using synthesizers and sequencers – one person, and easy budget expense.

As with any gear, there are limitations, and a score’s success lay in the composer’s ability to meet a film’s demands, and frankly, be innovative (a highpoint being something like Michael Convertino’s soothing/aggressive 1987 score for The Hidden). That’s why much of Jones’ mid- eighties to mid-nineties output is so interesting – his sound was distinct (he was the king of dour bass drones and pulsing beats of doom) and his scores served their films extremely well.

When I originally picked up Runaway Train on LP (that olde Enigma platter), I wasn’t impressed, because I was expecting the sound of Bad Influence (1990) or Sea of Love (1989) or Angel Heart (1987), not an electro-rock fusion. Flash to 2009, and it’s surprising how the score hasn’t aged so badly, and one can appreciate the decisive creative choices the composer made in ensuring his electronica blended with the pivotal classical piece that closed the film.

Check out the review for further details, and hopefully La-La Land’s relationship with Jones might yield the release of further Jones scores, many of which consisted of one or two measly tracks on already short music-from-and-inspired-by song album, or as part of a music, sound effects and dialogue montage mess.

I want the complete Angel Heart, dammit. Twenty-two years, and still no golden egg.


Culture Clashes of a 3rd Kind

This will be the first in a series of multiple posts that were delayed in getting uploaded on time due to some unwanted gremlins.

First up is an interview with District 9's Clinton Shorter, a Canadian composer whose career should become very interesting, now that the little sci-fi/drama he scored for director Neill Blomkamp is tops at the box office.

Shorter’s pre-blockbuster career includes scoring several films for Carl Bessai (including the director’s latest, Cole, which will screen at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival in September), as well many TV movies and TV series.

Accompanying the interview is a review of District 9, as well references to Alive in Joburg, the 2005 short film that Shorter scored for the director, and is the basis for District 9. (Both Joburg and Blomkamp’s other short, Yellow, are viewable on Youtube.)

One reason District 9 is getting so much critical buzz is the way Blomkamp blends multiple genres into his film, but certainly one aspect was comes through so powerfully by the end is the relationship between a deeply flawed human and two aliens – a father and son.

The co-existence of humans and aliens got major attention when writer/director/producer Kenneth Johnson took the concept of the wonky feature film Alien Nation (1988) and turned it into a 1989-1990 TV series. Instead of a singular ship carrying sick aliens parking themselves above one city, Nation had multiple ships arriving around the planet.

The kicker? The crafts held a mix of a few overloards and millions of prisoners, and much in the way humans brand the aliens a racial slur (“prawns”) in District 9, the aliens in Nation were “slags” who lived in scummy areas of the local cities.

The novel twist to Nation was rather than having aliens trapped in a slum for twenty years after a brief attempt at integration, the newcomers were given civic rights and allowed to fully integrate into human society, which in later series episodes included dating and foreplay; the latter was given a much more discrete touch than the dirtier image conjured by District 9 humans when ‘sex with an alien’ is used to turn people against native runaway Wikus, and help the police catch their prize before he attempts to aid the aliens.

In District 9, the human character is a bureaucrat with friends that pretty much shun him in the end; in Nation, it’s a fusion of mini-dramas dealing with culture clashes, and a buddy cop formula (typical for the eighties), since alien George Francisco is paired with human Matthew Sikes, and no matter how nice George is, the humans hate his guts.

The series, unlike the feature film, had humour, and was decidedly more genial in tone, except when Johnson had the stories address accessible issues like racism, religious freedom, and cultural adjustments (typically as experienced by George’s family) – which were in tune with Johnson’s other well-known production, V (1983).

That mini-series (billed as one of NBC’s most expensive endeavors) initially dealt with benevolent aliens being unmasked as avaricious cow herders (a great expansion of the “To Serve Man” episode of the original Twilight Zone series), and the rebel humans turning into French resistance fighters against a Nazi-ish regime – parallels Johnson never hid in the teleplay iconography and tone.

V eventually devolved via V: The Final Battle (1984), a sequel mini-series (what the hell were they thinking with that Star Child crap?) and short-lived TV series soon after (no money, familiar L.A. locations, and painful banality), whereas Nation was cancelled before it could further evolve, although Fox did something really, really smart: it let Johnson make a series of TV movies that were largely quite strong. Those teleplays hyper-focused on specific plots attached to darker subjects, as well as wrapping up unions and relationships left in limbo when the network ax came down in 1990.

One could make a sequel, cable movies, or serial TV series to District 9 – everything is left open – but the film is another intriguing attempt to address the integration of aliens and humans in the present day. V turned the event into a grand deception that had humans fighting back, whereas Alien Nation took it far further than District 9, and made the aliens stand-ins for the integration of a generic ethnic group trying to take advantage of rights given by the government, but denied to them by the locals because of a distaste for their physical and cultural differences.

So if you’re left hanging after District 9 and need another contemporary alien fix, try the aforementioned – they deserve a second chance – or wait until November 3rd when a new V series debuts on ABC.


Early Technicolor Films: Part 1

Somewhere offscreen Natalie Kalmus is chain-smoking nuclear clouds of angstBack in July, Universal released Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936). The film is an important stepping stone in the history of colour cinema because it marked the first time a feature-length movie was shot on location with Technicolor’s new (and very big) 3-strip cameras.

Apparently the company wasn’t crazy about the idea, but much like Fox’ pioneering widescreen process (Grandeur), if placed in the hands of gifted technicians trained to make a product on a studio budget (in other words, with bean counters watching every penny), the new technology would prove itself quite well in the field.

Grandeur, impressive as it was in The Big Trail (1930), didn’t last for a number of reasons, but like Trail, the new gear was more than functional outdoors, so it’s no surprise more films ended up being shot outdoors in full Technicolor.

In his autobiography, Magic Hour, British cinematographer Jack Cardiff recalled Technicolor being quite pissed in the way their cameras were being used in shooting a wartime sea sequence, as well as Cardiff’s own experimentation beyond the rigidly enforced Technicolor colour template. The company, quite frankly, owes its success not just to the brilliance of its eggheads and engineers, but to the creative rebels who wanted to see exactly how far one could push the new cameras in lighting and locations.

I had seen bits of Trail years ago on Elwy Yost’s Saturday Night at the Movies. The show’s producers were able to secure an actual colour print of the film. Now, this sounds like mere trivia, but back in the late eighties and early nineties, a lot of classic films on TV were still derived from 16mm and 35mm prints, and it was exciting when a vintage colour film was actually in colour.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), for example, was an early 2-strip Technicolor feature, and prior to that film’s restoration and appearance on laserdisc, Mystery was mostly shown on TV in black & white, although the print I saw on PBS had color.

Sort of.

That experience was surreal, because it was a faded color print, which meant vestiges of colour would waver, saturate and wash out throughout scenes, but for some reason, that viewing felt exciting, even though there was barely any colour pigment left. It was glimpse into film history on a completely lo-fi format, which is why Yost’s airing of Trail in full colour was notable.

Universal’s DVD is taken from a surprisingly clean print, but the disc lacks any extras, which is unfortunate, given the film’s importance. Moreover, the DVD is an import in Canada, mostly likely because Trail was part of the Paramount film library that was sold to MCA in the fifties for TV airings, and perhaps Universal’s home video rights don’t extend to Canada. Who knows – but the disc is worth snapping up, and here’s why.

As a companion review, I’ve also added Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature-length 3-strip Technicolor film, which was restored in 1992 by UCLA.

It may well have been on the same night that Yost aired Trail, but there was a news item on that show regarding Becky Sharp’s restoration, and during the Q&A, a technician played footage on a Steenbeck, and every so often there were split screen comparisons between the restored footage and how it’s looked – pale and wonky – for fifty years.

I’m still waiting to see the restored version on home video or TV – it’s going on 17 years now – but being a fan of director Rouben Mamoulian, I had to see this colour first, albeit as a poor Alpha Video edition. There are some related links embedded into the review that are worth checking out, but here’s hoping that as Blu-ray is pushing labels to give the deluxe treatment to their classic crown jewels, maybe this ignored classic will finally get a second life in the commercial realm (and with Criterion-like extras to explain the film’s importance to newer film buffs).

Seventeen years, people. Come on.



Coco Chanel: Take One

Just as film studios have produced rival theatrical films (Fox’ Volcano versus Universal’s Dante’s Peak), so has TV tried to ride one film’s attention (and publicity budget) with a more modest production, often released prior to a film’s theatrical run.

The dueling biopics Harlow (1965) may not really count, although one can’t imagine someone actually believed shooting a movie using black & white TV tube cameras and dumping the footage to 35mm film had a chance at competing against Joseph E. Levine’s glossy big budget production.

Perhaps the most infamous example of dueling media actually reversed the formula: both Raid on Entebbe and Victory at Entebbe were 1976 teleplays, and were followed by Menachem Golan’s Israeli film Mivtsa Yonatan / Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt in 1977 (a movie that’s still unavailable here on DVD, let alone with English subtitles).

Next came Rene Cardona’s theatrical sleazefest Guyana: Crime of the Century (1979), and William A. Graham’s teleplay Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980).

The most recent examples of dueling productions include the 1996 Titanic mini-series being broadcast before James Cameron’s 1997 theatrical opus; the direct-to-video War of the Worlds released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, and the 2005 Poseidon Adventure mini-series that preceded Wolfgang Petersen’s 2006 big budget extravaganza.

Sometimes, as with the Entebbe films, there are enough strengths in each production to regard them as, well, worthy, if not distinguished, whereas the 2005 Poseidon mini-series failed as miserably as the feature film to rework a famous story into something dramatically sound and rewarding.

Anne Fontaine’s Coco avant Chanel (2009) is slated for a French Region 2 DVD release in October, but those intrigued by the designer’s early life as a struggling designer can enjoy a sampling of Chanel’s backstory in Coco Chanel (Canada: Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada / U.S.A.: Screen Media), a 2008 French-Italian co-production that aired on the Lifetime Network, and stars Shirley MacLaine, Malcolm McDowell, and Barbora Bobulova.


Leisure Still Rules

It's no secret that around the time of Curly Sue (1991), his last effort in the director's chair, John Hughes (1950 - 2009) was starting to lose his so-called golden touch, although that's really a facile statement, since Hughes' prominence came when he inadvertently overhauled the youth film from a stale genre to something energetic, witty, incisive and hugely commercial.

His films didn't involve beaches, monsters, street gangs, or feature a tortured misunderstood youth screaming at his parents for 'tearing him apart.' Hughes pivotal films - Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) – were born from a mind that went through a kind of Preston Sturges creative cluster before they became familiar, formulaic, impersonal, and just plain commercial, which is probably why Hughes stepped away from directing in 1991, and focused on writing again, scribbling the massively successful Home Alone diptych (I refuse to acknowledge Part 3) and a lot of generic fodder that pushed him away from the once unique mantle he held as a kind of wunderkind.

His combination of real-life youths playing teens broke the inane convention of twentysomethings playing teens that was the standard during the seventies, his dialogue was profane yet earnest, and his use of music redefined the soundtrack album; although he did work with film composers (mostly with the underrated Ira Newborn), his movies featured custom and existing tunes by name bands and musicians, and the lyrics were purposeful to the plot and characters.

For the record labels (particularly MCA), though, his movies were gold, because the soundtrack LPs were all about selling the songs – which his films initially weren't – to a lucrative demographic hungry to hear new music, and relive moments from their favourite misadventures.

The albums for his teen films rarely featured any score cuts, and they were among the crop of soundtracks releases that convinced labels to dump the otherwise standard practice of issuing actual score albums (if not a half-and-half combo) – a devastating effect on orchestral and all-synth scores already struggling to find their small but devoted audiences. The song soundtrack album is often attributed to Simon and Garfunkel's The Graduate (1967), but the practice of making movies with mostly songs didn't really gel until Hughes showed how well they could be integrated as part of a film's dialogue, visual style, and an active component in a film's editing tempo.

His movies are lessons in the codification of what's now called 'eighties music montages,' and though it's a dated practice, it's still very much a part of standard moviemaking, both for purposeful plot advancement, and as outright filler material because filmmakers were too lazy to craft coherent scenes and a plot.

Everyone around my age has a favourite Hughes film, be it the angst of trying to be cool at the age of sixteen, aiming to romance someone from a higher social standing, or in my case, skipping classes with friends because school, more or less, was dull, time-wasting, and uninspiring.

My high school was known at the time for kids skipping classes in large blocks prior to exams, a high quotient of rich brats getting their own cars at sixteen even though the family mansions were minutes away by foot, a pinhead vice-principal who demanded late kids stand frozen in the hallways during announcements so he could scribble out late slips (he actually pushed a kid away from the the hallway door he was half-way passing thru), and kids who knew how to manipulate teachers with sickening brilliance.

One friend never realized she'd killed off several grandmothers (more than her family had) when she used another 'family death' as an excuse for missing several days of pedagogical boredom, and there was that sickening moment when she sat on the math teacher's desk, nibbled at his muffin, and kept whispering/weaseling “Pleeeze, Mister Paccilo” to boost her average closer to 90% (which she got in the end).


There was a classmate who owned his own car, and drove it playing music so loud people in the mall where I worked could hear us advancing through brick and steel walls; and two friends who became an unlikely couple, and with whom I tagged along during lunches that became longer and longer than legally allowed.

Mostly it was the class skipping that made me giggle when I caught a preview screening of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (double-billed with the shitty Poltergeist II), and the fact that Ferris' high school was mine. I was friends with a wit who may not have gone so far as to climb onto a parade float and sing to crowds on his day off, but he was the Robin Williams of my class, and he made skipping class fun.

Another friend had issues with his siblings, and always branded his sister “ugly,” and once drew his brother's head on the class chalkboard during lunch, with giant oil wells spouting geysers of grease that supposedly lay buried beneath cranial plates.

The Breakfast Club is fun, Pretty in Pink is dated and yes, screechingly awful, and Some Kind of Wonderful is worth it solely for Mary Stuart Masterson and that dynamic drummer girl title montage, but the film that to my eyes clicked was Ferris Bueller's Day Off, because it's about the dream day, the ultimate revenge against pinhead authority, and one seriously hot girl named Sloane who reminded me of the muffin-nibbling brat in math class.

Bueller was also tech-savvy; not as an uber-geek, but as a cheeky little rascal who could piece together a gizmo using a home tapedeck, wires, and a keyboard to fool his parents long enough to paint the local suburban town with his friends.

Although it's sad Hughes never captured that magic in later films, it's plainly obvious he couldn't. The teen films were part of a creative run, and a genre revitalization, and like any realist, he probably sensed any further misadventures would've been straight regurgitation.

That's why he tackled other comedic scenarios – Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), She's Having a Baby (1988), Home Alone (1990) – before seemingly giving up and settling for what he initially avoided – regurgitating material – through further sequels, and remaking other peoples' movies, including classics like Miracle on 34th Street (1994), Flubber (1997), and the French film Just Visiting / Les Visiteurs in 2001.

Hughes didn't become irrelevant in his later years; he just settled into the factory setting his teen characters rebelled against, which is a strange irony, although one can believe Ferris could've moved into the corporate world and been the most popular exec in the department. He would've had the best parties, the hottest girl, cute kids, and figured out ways to make it appear he was hard at work in the office or on a vital business lunch when in reality, Ferris was likely escaping from his corporate park in a company limo to meet wife Sloane and attend a baseball game, along with best buddy Cameron – purely to prove that life does move fast, and you have to force a bit of leisure time to stifle mounting tension, and the gradual insanity of aging.

Haven't figured out how to accomplish that, but Ferris is still the sage one.

Like the sprawling preview poster I still have reads, it is indeed true that Leisure Rules.


Fall Canadian DVD & Blu-ray announcements

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek will street Nov. 17, and Paramount will spread the film out on single disc and 2-disc standard DVD editions, as well as a 3-disc Blu-ray release, the latter featuring what's billed as "plot-based deleted scenes," a new phrase that's rather baffling, given most deleted scenes were originally conceived to advance plotting, if not deepen characters.


Jack Ketchum's Offspring ($24.97) arrives Oct. 6 from Anchor Bay/Starz, and will include a commentary track with author Ketchum, director Andrew van den Houten, cinematographer/producer William M. Miller, plus a featurette, script, photo gallery, and webisodes. This is the third Ketchum production distributed by Anchor Bay, alongside The Girl Next Door (2007) and The Lost (2006). The film's cast as well as author Ketchum will be present at Rue Morgue's Festival of Fear.

The label will also release the Canadian slasher Happy Birthday to Me (1981), a title previously released by Columbia and long out of print on DVD. The film was directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) and co-produced by John Dunning (My Bloody Valentine).


Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell will appear on DVD ($36.99) and BR ($46.99) with theatrical and unrated cuts on Oct. 13.


From Alliance, Easy Virtue ($36.99) streets Sept. 22, Away We Go ($36.99) on Sept.29th, and Zach Galifianakis' The Visioneers has been re-scheduled for Oct. 6.


E1 will release Atom Egoyan's Adoration ($34.99) on Oct. 13, the horror film Dead Snow ($34.99) Oct. 20, and Bela Tar's The Man from London ($34.99) on Oct. 27.


Vivendi/Cinema Vault will release the horror film The Blackout ($19.95) Oct. 13, and Blue Blood / aka If I Didn't Care ($19.95), one of Roy Scheider's last films, arrives Oct. 6 with interviews, behind the scenes footage, and a trailer. Scheider died in 2008, and Blue Blood was originally shot in 2007, prior to the direct-to-video thriller Dark Honeymoon (2008), and Iron Cross (officially slated for a 2010 release).

On their own, Vivendi will bring out the rock documentary Anvil ($24.95) Oct. 6.


Thomas Jane's directorial debut, Dark Country, arrives Oct. 6 from Sony.


Warner Bros. has also announced some of their Christmas titles. I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003) comes out in a remastered edition while the following classics will debut on Blu-ray for $35.99: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), Horton Hears a Who! (1970), and Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).


Lastly, fall TV releases will include Flashpoint (Oct. 13) and The Tudors: Season 3 Uncut (Nov. 10) from Phase4Films; the original sixties show One Step Beyond: Season 1 (Sept. 15) and George Romero's Tales from the Darkside: Season 2 (Oct. 6) from Paramount; and Fear Itself: Season 1 and Crash: Season 1 (both Sept. 15) from Maple (Canada) and Lionsgate (U.S.A.), the latter title featuring alternate endings and deleted scenes.


And the most unnecessary packaging concept for the fall (so far): Dreamworks crafting O-sleeves for 8 of their core animated titles (including the Shrek franchise, and single titles such as Kung Fu Panda) with sleeve art tied to Monsters vs. Aliens, under the branding "B.O.B. Ate My DVD."

Why? Seriously. WHY?


Music From The Movies DVD Column: Archived, and Good to Go

Why bother archiving old columns for DVD releases with unique film music content from years ago? Is it ego? Or just the cold hard fact that words written - good, bad, or blatherish - can vanish when a site folds?

If one comes from a print background, the discomfort is when the physical medium of one's work is no longer in print, and the content can't be reproduced without reproducing the many pages on actual paper (unless it's a digital incarnation, or is available online via organizations like Project Gutenberg Canada). However, a copy of the book still physically exists somewhere, whether in a used shop, flea market, collector marketplace, or in the office of some grand little knob using amazondotwherever to sell an esoteric book for $250 because it's out of print.

For some reason, it just seems scarier when the loss of one's words occur in a digital medium because all kinds of things can destroy the data. The medium goes dead tech and starts to bugger up, making the backup version corrupt (like a 100 MB zip drive). Or the backup copies on CDR contain the same singular backup copies from an incomplete master copy made from the defunct medium prior to a massive hard drive crash. Or that mighty old standby, Google's cache, no longer keeps your column because it's either now a dead link, or because the traffic has sufficiently subsided and no one's keyword searches are bringing it up, causing the cache containing your words to become null and voided.

The smart thing to do is keep a hardcopy of one's digital work - a printout - but I think we've taken it for granted that, because so many words move around us, they can't possibly disappear, which is why the idea of bothering with a hardcopy seems silly. It takes up space, and who wants to go back to having boxes of physical crap on shelves in a small room when one is used to having a compact spindle of digital crap that takes up less that one square foot of drawer space?

In any event, it was quite surprising to discover all the online columns written between 2003-2008 were scattered all over the place, and the oldest (from 2003) were luckily saved on a CDRW that hasn't been used in eons. The only irony: the very first column is, uh, gone. I'm pretty sure it was a short, banal piece of work, but I'd like to have had the choice to not reprint it rather than have that choice made due to personal stupidity. (It may exist on an old hard drive image, but that version is outdated, and the current software version can't read the old one. So much for backwards compatibility.)

I've tweaked the index for the online column, reconfigured the text into a new template with surviving art, and linked certain film titles to any CD or DVD reviews already extant at KQEK.com. Next week you should also be able to read the print column (as jpeg scans) - a column that was a whole different animal.

More importantly, with rare exceptions, I haven't changed any words, nor toned down any of the rants or repetitions, leaving whatever flaws or myopic predictions intact, because it's sometimes fun to see how wrong one can be, or when one gives up on specific criticisms simply because the major DVD labels don't always make bright decisions, be it in 2003, or 2009. (Amazing how not much has been learned as we move into the slow, clumpy popularity of Blu-ray - opinions for which I'll save for a future blog/rant.)

So among the material covered and fully reviewed in the archives are:

- Powell and Pressburger's Thief of Bagdad (Criterion)

- all four editions of the documentary series Music for the Movies from Kultur (The Hollywood Sound, Bernard Herrmann, Georges Delerue, and Toru Takemitsu)

- great jazz scores by Courtney Pine and Wycliffe Gordon in Criterion's Paul Robeson boxed set

- Criterion's Pandora's Box (featuring four newly commissioned scores)

- a portrait of filmmaker Tony Palmer, via his epic Wagner mini-series, and the Shostakovich bio-doc Testimony

- a portrait of Stelvio Cipriani, via the DVD releases of Death Walks on High Heels, Colt 38, Special Squad, and Convoy Busters

- and more, so check 'em out!


From Shorts to Features – Part Two

Hot Chick beats Bad Hair hands downBrian Hecker’s period at the AFI yielded the short Family Attraction (1998), which reportedly became one of the AFI’s most popular shorts – unsurprising that it would be the first of six films in Vanguard’s DVD 2003 collection, Celebrating AFI.

Hecker eventually wrote and directed his first feature, Bart Got a Room (Anchor Bay/Starz) ten years later, wherein he mined his uncomfortable teen years for a refreshing take on guy-getting-girl-for-prom plot.

At under 80 mins., it’s a short gem that hopefully won’t disappear amid the banal star-studded comedies cranked out by the major studios every month. Hecker’s sense of humour is sly, subtle, and never condescending towards his characters, and Bart Got a Room also showcases Hollywood, Florida as a colourful suburban seniors haven.

Oh, and William H. Macy sports the worst hairdo in filmdom.


Copyright © mondomark