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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

“I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my movies very seriously” – Lloyd Kaufman Interviewed

The world knows Lloyd Kaufman (or rather, the part of the world that has heard of Lloyd Kaufman knows him) as the face of Troma Films and the director of the notoriously outrageous zero-budget cult-classic The Toxic Avenger and sequels. Fewer people know that he’s directed dozens of films (including the 2006 return to form Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, now also on–yes, it’s true–Blu-ray), produced scores more and made appearances in over a hundred genuinely independently-produced movies (partly out of solidarity with directors working outside the system, partly to promote the Troma brand). And some may even know that he’s the author of numerous books, most recently the guerrilla how-to guide Direct Your Own Damn Movie!, and a producer of documentaries and box sets devoted to practical tips on low-budget filmmaking.

Lloyd kaufman
Lloyd Kaufman

What is less well known is his commitment to independent filmmaking. Not the kind of multi-million dollar films with major stars and studio backing that Hollywood brands as “Independent,” but independently financed and produced films made and seen outside the studio system. He’s the president of The Independent Film and Television Alliance, the trade association for the independent movie industry, and has been actively engaged in the fight to preserve net neutrality. And he created the TromaDance Film Festival, unique in the spectrum of American film festivals in that it does not charge filmmakers a fee to submit their films nor does it charge admission to the shows.

I interviewed Lloyd Kaufman in June 2009, when he was in Seattle for a horror convention. Troma’s tireless publicist arranged an opportunity for me to interview him between appearances and we spent over an hour in his hotel lobby talking about everything from the democratization filmmaking to corporate stranglehold on the distribution and exhibition of movies in the U.S. (from theaters to TV) to the origins of Troma.

As the 11th Annual TromaDance Film Festival prepares to unspool on April 16, 2010, in its new home at Asbury Park, New Jersey, we present this lively interview with the outspoken and passionate Lloyd Kaufman. And be prepared: Kaufman is not shy about letting his passions through in very colorful language. Take it as you will, as warning or enticement.

You have a very interesting set of credits. You worked on Rocky and you were production manager on My Dinner With Andre.

Yes, I was indeed. Those movies, Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, those were my film school.

How did you move from working on those industry productions to creating the outsider studio Troma?

I was making my own movies constantly, I was always making my own damn movies and I was interested in long form, so at the one time we were trying to figure out… I did Sugar Cookies in 1970, I didn’t direct it, I made the mistake of just raising money and writing and producing, and then the distribution didn’t work out too well. And then we made a movie in Israel that’s probably the worst movie in history, called Big Gus, What’s the Fuss (1971), it’s the only movie I’m embarrassed to show and we got screwed on that one, and then Michael Herz and I decided that we had better learn distribution, and that’s when we started Troma in 1974 to both produce and distribute ourselves. Of course in those days there was just theatrical.

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Kapò and The Sadist With Red Teeth – Two Kinds of Horror and the DVDs of the Week

Kapò (Criterion: Essential Art House)

In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?

Kapo
Kapo

Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg, her performance dubbed into Italian) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.

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These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

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The Man Behind Walter Bishop: “Fringe” star John Noble interviewed

Australian thespian John Noble was best know to American audiences as King Denethor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films before he became Walter Bishop in Fringe. The character is a tortured genius who spent 17 years in a mental facility, treated with heavy doses of pharmaceuticals and receiving no visitors, until he was released into the custody of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Walter’s estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), whose resentments smooth out to affection over the course the show. On the one hand, Walter is an entertaining eccentric with limited social skills and a childlike delight in the smallest things. On the other, he’s a broken soul whose earlier experiments sacrificed people in the name of science and now, as he rediscovers his humanity in the social world, has to face the human cost of his actions. His compassion and responsibility is returning and it’s painful.

John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"
John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"

Noble’s resonant voice takes on a continental quality for the role, vaguely but indistinctly American. “When I first approached the character, I was looking for something that was unique,” he explained about the accent. “We could have done standard American, but looking for something a bit more Trans-Atlantic, because my experience with academics, they do have a slightly different way of talking. They mix with people from all over the world. So I guess what I settled on was something which could have been like a Boston accent but with English adaptations, and that was the Trans-Atlantic one.” When he drops character, however, his Australian heritage comes through loud and clear.

The road to this interview was unusually complicated. His tentative availability during an abbreviated set visit was scotched due to production shifts. A scheduled conference call became an exercise in frustration when I couldn’t get a question through, thanks to a connection glitch. Finally a direct phone interview was arranged via a temperamental cell phone, and despite the drop-outs and fuzz I was able to get in a questions in a brief ten minute discussion. The following interview, conducted by phone on March 29, features our discussion plus a few comments from the earlier conference call.

Spoiler alert: The conversation reveals elements of the episode “Peter” (which aired Thursday, April 1). The rest of the season is discussed in more vague terms.

Fringe is about a lot of things, but the most interesting story to me is the human story of Walter Bishop rediscovering his conscience and his humanity as he reconnects with his son and starts to care for the people he works with, and starts to see the damage of his experiments on the people that he loves and on people he’s just now meeting.

The retreat into insanity was a defense mechanism based on the theory you’re taking, which I do agree with. He became aware that he effected basically the whole stability of society. So whether he retreated into society to survive that or it’s a defense mechanism, which is also possible, I think it’s a very good point. However, coming out of it, he’s having to face all that again and it’s tragic. It’s bloody awful, isn’t it.

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DVDs of the Month: The African Queen and Bigger Than Life

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

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Interview: Eddie Muller, the Ambassador of Film Noir

Author, critic, film authority and festival programmer Eddie Muller was branded “The Czar of Noir” by James Ellroy for his knowledge of and passion for the subject. Since publishing Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and programming a film noir festival in Los Angeles in 1998, Muller has become not simply the most prominent film noir authority in the U.S., he’s become an ambassador for film noir as the organizer, programmer and Master of Ceremonies of the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco (and in the smaller traveling Noir City offshoot) and as the president of the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit organization that puts on Noir City and uses the proceeds to fund film restoration. The Eighth Annual Noir City (with 24 films in 12 programs over 10 days) unspooled at the Castro in San Francisco in January 2010 and the Seattle incarnation (14 films over 7 days) opened on Friday, February 19. (The Hollywood incarnation at the historic Egyptian Theater, where Muller programmed his first film noir festival, is scheduled for April.) I spoke with Muller by phone between the San Francisco and Seattle series and we talked movies, noir icons, film preservation and the thrill of seeing film noir on the big screen. (My profile and preview of the series is at The Stranger here.)

Noir City 2010

This is the eighth year of Noir City, and the fourth road show edition of Noir City in Seattle. How have you been able to develop it into such a big annual event?

First off, it’s the eighth Noir City Festival we’ve done in San Francisco but I’ve actually been doing them, oh my God, this will be my eleventh year in L.A. at the American Cinemateque, which is where I actually started doing it. But those early ones at the Egyptian weren’t Noir City events, that’s a San Francisco thing, there’s where it was started. And it really was like the perfect storm, in a way. It’s a combination of showing the right kind of films in the perfect venue in San Francisco at the exact right time of year. Beyond that, I guess that somehow it works that people like to have a personality or a face attached to it that they recognize, so that has been helpful, it turns out, that I’m so associated with this festival and that I’m a San Franciscan, that certainly has helped in San Francisco. So that’s really it. There’s nothing else competing in San Francisco at that time of year, is winter, it makes sense for film noir, the Castro is the perfect place to show these films. People have turned it into a real happening and that’s really—besides the restoration work and all kind of stuff—it is fascinating to me that we have show, somehow, that you can draw a thousand people on a weeknight to watch sixty-year-old black-and-white films in a theater. It is pretty remarkable.

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Howling at the Screen: The Wolfman

That Universal’s visually sanguine yet emotionally bloodless revival of their most ferocious and most tragic movie monster is a complete stiff is beyond debate. The real question is how anyone can direct this story, at heart about a man under a curse that transforms him from a moral being into a beastly predator and then transforms him back with the knowledge of his deeds, without even accidentally stumbling into tragedy and pathos and the terrible torment of his ordeal?

Benicio Del Toros Lawrence Talbot, so repressed hes practically gets lost in the gloom
Benicio Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot, so repressed he's practically lost in the gloom

Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for the original 1941 The Wolfman is credited as the source for this Victorian-era retelling (there are elements also taken from the uncredited 1935 Werewolf of London) and, while great liberties are taken with the family history, it’s remains true to the basics and even begins by quoting directly from the source: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This (purposely?) clumsy bit of doggerel sounds like some peasant folk legend by way of child’s rhyme but it is as much Hollywood invention as the story itself (while shapeshifters are common through folklore, the specifics of the werewolf legend—the full moon, the silver bullets, only a true love can kill it—were created whole cloth, or rather fur, by Hollywood). It’s both carved into stone and spoken aloud with a heavy gravity, ostensibly an effort to create a sense of foreboding. It merely elicited titters from the preview audience I was with and offered a preview of the pose of ominous mystery and gloomy Gothic drear that smothered any hint of personality, dramatic tension or fun.

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Last Call for Nearly 30 Criterion DVDs (and one Blu-ray)

Just in this week on the Criterion website: Criterion is losing the rights a number of titles in their collection in March. (See the original post on Criterion Currents here.)

The curtain is soon to fall on Criterion's lavish DVD of Powell and Pressberger's "The Tales of Hoffman"

The home video rights to a number of films from the StudioCanal library will go to Lionsgate at the end of March. The Criterion editions will go out of print (or on moratorium, as they say in the video industry) and will be unavailable commercially on the U.S. until Lionsgate puts out their own editions.

As you may know, Criterion has direct access to the Janus film library, a tremendous collection of international classics that makes up the majority of its releases, but they also license many films from other studios and collections. Those contracts last for a period of time and then are up for renewal, and in this case StudioCanal did not renew with Criterion. It’s likely nothing personal, just business, as they say, and perhaps not even something they have a choice over. Lionsgate has been releasing a lot of StudioCanal films (coming up later this month are Blu-ray editions of Kurosawa’s Ran, Godard’s Contempt and the Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers) and this just may be a contractual part of their relationship. (This is, mind you, merely supposition on my part and not based on any inside information.)

Regardless, a number of Criterion titles (including a couple of box sets) will be unavailable by the end of March (see list below) so Criterion is offering a deal through their website: an extra $5 off each of these titles while supplies last. You can also continue to purchase them through Amazon and other traditional merchants until the end of March (or until the current stocks are depleted, whichever comes first).

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The Way You Don’t Die: The Hurt Locker

[expanded from a review originally published on seanax.com, July 2009]

“Tell me something. What’s the best way to disarm one of these things?”

“The way you don’t die, sir.”

Jeremy Renner scans the terrain
Jeremy Renner scans the terrain

Set in the current Iraq war, after the proclamation of “Mission Accomplished” and the transformation of a battlefield army into an occupation force, The Hurt Locker follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit (the days count down with each mission) as it gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms.

James doesn’t follow the rules. Every bomb is a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad.

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True Fiction: Kathryn Bigelow on ‘The Hurt Locker’

The Hurt Locker premiered in the one-two punch of the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2008 and then made the long march through subsequent film festivals until its theatrical release in June 2009. Director Kathryn Bigelow shepherded the film through each showing, giving interviews every step of the way. She knew it was a hard sell. There had still not been a commercially successful film of the Iraq war and the low budget, independently-produced The Hurt Locker had no stars and no obvious promotional “hook.” It was simply a brilliant film, and we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the box-office.

Kathryn Bigelow in B&W
Kathryn Bigelow in B&W

I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Bigelow May 2009, when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. I had seen the film in Toronto and the shellshock had still not subsided, but I had been a fan ever since Near Dark and was thrilled to finally get a chance to ask her a few questions. Unfortunately time was limited and there was so much to discuss about The Hurt Locker that we never had the opportunity to talk about her other films. Maybe on my next rotation…

You start the film off with a quote by Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” There’s a real simplified reading of that comment, which is that likes the challenge and he thrives on the thrill. But I think it’s more complex than that. He’s the best at what he does and he’s at his best under pressure. He’s in charge and, for all the danger, he’s as in control as he ever is. When he gets back, he’s lost.

That’s beautifully put. I couldn’t improve on that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book that Chris Hedges has written, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” it’s a great book and required reading. He talks about that you’re looking today at a volunteer military and one of the many things he confronts is, war’s dirty little secret is some men love it. This isn’t everybody, it’s just a particular type of psychological state with some men, there’s a psychological allure that combat creates, some kind of attractiveness, and it does create an almost addictive quality that they can’t replicate in any other way and are lost in any other context. However, in the case of Sgt. James—and again, I’m not extrapolating and saying there’s hundreds of thousands of Sgt. James—but the case specifically with Sgt. James is combining that kind of bravado and recklessness in his swagger and demeanor, but with a profound skill set. He is perhaps not the best diplomat but he does keep everybody alive. So it’s exactly what you said, what enables him to do what he does so well. There’s a kind of attraction, there’s a kind of addiction, there’s what I would call a price to his heroism and what that sacrifice has been for him is a flight from intimacy. He can’t be a hero in the sense that he’s the perfect father, the perfect husband and the perfect bomb tech. That doesn’t exist. There’s a real cost to his ability.

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The Devil in the Details: “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”

A rickety wedge of a gypsy wagon with walls a couple of stories high wobbles through modern London streets, pulled by a couple of tired horses and carrying a tired old souse playing out the role of the carny showman on pure instinct. These traveling players could have ridden right out of the medieval era on the cobblestone streets that have brought them to the waterfront pub where a rowdy bloke decides to have a little fun with these threadbare dandies, especially the succulent young moonfaced beauty (Lily Cole) he chases through the stage mirror that, like Alice before him, takes him into another world, but this is one dreamscape he’s not prepared to handle. Though it’s not exactly explained, the Imaginarium apparently offers those who step through the mylar gates visions of their own dreams, desires and creative will, but only those who do so with open minds and hearts. This bloke, barreling through with no good on his mind, isn’t coming back. “Gone,” sighs Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with a weary resignation. “Will we miss him? I don’t think so.”

Step right up to the Imaginarium
Step right up to the Imaginarium

You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, a steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. (The Imaginarium is also Gilliam’s first embrace of CGI as a primary tool for creating images onscreen; like any tool, both are only as good as the mind behind it, or inside it, as the case may be.) His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.

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Good Things in Big Packages: DVD Box Sets of 2009

I’m winding down my year in DVD coverage with this highly subjective survey of the box sets of 2009 that brought new titles to DVD (no collections of previously released titles in new packages here). To be clear, I didn’t see every set that came along, or even every film in those that I did see, but I made an effort to see as many interesting things as I could over the course of my duties as the DVD reviewer for MSN Entertainment. (Conspicuously absent is Criterion’s lavish AK 100, simply because I did not receive a review copy and couldn’t afford to plunk down the purchase price for a set with only four DVD debuts.) Here are the most interesting sets I had the pleasure to see in the course of my DVD reviewing in 2009, in brief sketches. I have written at more length about some of these releases and offer links to those reviews where possible.

10. The Secret Policeman’s Balls (Shout! Factory)

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman
Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman

When Amnesty International needed to raise money and their profile, John Cleese called up his buddies (which included the members of Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to help put on fundraiser. And then another. And the rest is history. This three-disc set collects the films made of five of these benefits, beginning with the 1976 Pleasure At Her Majesty’s, part documentary (with extensive footage of rehearsals) and part performance film. Adding to the fun is role swapping: Peter Cook in a Python sketch, Terry Jones joining Beyond the Fringe, everyone belting out “The Lumberjack Song.” Pete Townsend provides acoustic musical interludes in the 1979 The Secret Policeman’s Ball, where Rowan Atkinson (among others) joins the fun. Musical guests became more prominent in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981), including Sting, Bob Geldoff, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and downright dominate The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987), but the skit comedy focus returns in the final benefit film. The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989) opens with Michael Palin and John Cleese doing “Pet Shop” (with a twist punchline) and features Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (in their first live appearance together in years), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The set also features a wealth of unseen skits and musical performances and the feature-length 2004 documentary Remember The Secret Policeman’s Ball? among the supplements.

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DVD Discoveries and Rediscoveries 2009

A sexy giallo thriller
"A sexy giallo thriller"

My oh my how spoiled we get. Once upon a time, we cult hounds would hunt through neighborhood video stores to uncover off-brand VHS releases of obscure Italian horror films and dubbed editions of foreign movies, which we would devour no matter how grainy the transfer or censored the print. Now, more than ten year into the DVD age, we have become so… demanding. Uncut prints. Restored masters. Clean soundtracks. And widescreen films should be anamorphic. Otherwise, they look soft and fuzzy when blown up to fill our widescreen HD home theater screens.

The following films are not the necessarily of the finest video or audio quality, but they are all much appreciated releases of forgotten, unavailable or otherwise enigmatic foreign rarities and cult items with irresistible (credentials). Some of these films I knew by reputation only, some I had never even known of, until the DVD release introduced me to the glories of these films. There are surely many other films that slipped by me this year, but these were my discoveries of 2009. This is why I love DVD.

5. Lookin’ to Get Out: Director’s Cut (Warner) – Hal Ashby’s 1982 gambling comedy, directed from a script co-written by star Jon Voight, was a critical and commercial flop on its original release. Seen today, in a longer cut than was originally released (Ashby was pressured to edit it down by 15 minutes by the studio), it’s hardly a lost masterpiece but it is a revelation of sorts, a shaggy dog gambling caper with characters whose eccentricities are so passionately embraced by the performers that they come to unexpected life. Voight is Alex, a hopeless gambling addict with unflagging optimism in his own abilities who sets off to Vegas with his schlub of a best friend Jerry (Burt Young) for a “big score” to settle a gambling debt. Alex is flamboyant, effusive, a perpetual motion hustler racing with out-of-control momentum. Jerry is constantly worried and unceasingly loyal, but at root he’s a good-hearted romantic who takes everyone at their word until they prove their word isn’t worth anything.

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TV on DVD 2009 – The Great, the Rediscovered and the Timeless

What I love about TV on DVD is the sense of discovery, of rediscovery and celebration of great television from all eras. You’ll not find Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or even The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency on this list. Those shows and other hit series and cult shows and top-notch special presentations, as superb as their DVD presentations may be (and yes, Lost and Terminator are beautifully produced DVD and Blu-ray sets), are well represented and don’t need me to draw attention to them. Here’s a collection that includes classic drama, contemporary comedy, timeless non-fiction, stand-out science fiction and various points in between. Not necessarily “the best” of TV on DVD, it’s a selection of shows, old and new, archival and ephemeral, that been given a new life on DVD and a whole opportunity for audiences to discover them.

Sesame Street
Sesame Street

10. Sesame Street: 40 Years Of Sunny Days (Genius) – Celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the longest running children’s television show in history with a combination video scrapbook and greatest bits compilation. After an intro that eases us into the cultural flashback with snapshots from each season we join Gordon leading a child onto Sesame Street, promising that it’s a street like no other, for the show’s debut episode. Ernie sings “Rubber Ducky” and Kermit sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” there’s an orange Oscar the Grouch (he went green later; apparently, it was easier for Oscar to be green, the color of mold), and Alistair Cookie (Monster) introduces Monsterpiece Theater’s production of “Me Claudius,” all in the first half hour.

There’s a greatest hits of musical guests from Diana Ross and James Taylor to Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keyes (plus the crazy quilt of guest stars imploring Ernie to “Put Down the Ducky”) and Muppet skits (spotlighting the great comedy chemistry of Ernie and Bert and the surreal humor of Jim Henson’s crew) sprinkled through the programs. Pop culture flashbacks—R2D2 and C3PO help Big Bird to count, The Fonz teaches us the difference between on and off in his own inimitable way and the Cookie Monster discos—place the show unmistakably in its various eras. And touchstone moments of the street portion of the show are revived, including the day the grown-ups finally see the Snuffleupagus, the marriage of Maria and Luis and the birth of their daughter, and most touchingly the discussion with Big Bird as they try to explain the death of Mr. Hooper (after the real-life actor, Will Lee, passed away). That’s the draw this show has for baby boomers who grew up on the show. For the current crop of tots, we get closer to the present with the first appearances of Elmo and Abby Cadabby and the contemporary guest stars, from Robert DeNiro explaining his own brand of method acting to Elmo to Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing as The Shoe Fairy. The nostalgia factor is pretty irresistible for adults and playful approach of education and gentle tenor of its skits makes it perfect of children of any generation, making it one of the few kids DVDs that adults may enjoy just as much as (if not more) than their kids. The two-disc set also includes a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews (which can be accessed while watching the show or viewed as a separate supplement), an optional pop-up trivia track and a few bonus bits.

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