DVD MARATHON: Saturday, June 10th, 2006by Jonathan Doyle, Sarah Duda, and Neil Karassik
Welcome to DVD MARATHON, a new feature here at DiscLand. Every now and then you need to spend an entire Saturday catching up on your DVD viewing and this is one of those Saturdays. We (DiscLand contributors Jonathan Doyle, Sarah Duda, and Neil Karassik) plan to spend the entire day watching DVDs and commenting as we go. While most of these discs are fairly obscure, we encourage you to play along at home -- if you have any of these discs or can track them down -- and add your comments below.
For the most part, these are the kinds of crowd-pleasing genre films that make for ideal summer DVD viewing, particularly in the context of a DVD marathon (like a drive-in, but without all the cars). We don't have a firm viewing schedule in place, but we'll be drawing from the following list of candidates: The Ape, Back Door to Hell, Bare Behind Bars, The Candy Snatchers, Don't Go Near the Park, The Fifth Cord, A Fine Mess, The Last American Hero, The Lightship, Malevolence, Mysterious Skin, The Reivers, Street Law, and The Witch Who Came From the Sea.
Join us for a day of DVD viewing and let us know what you're watching, even if it has nothing to do with what we're watching.
Back Door to Hell(Fox Home Entertainment, 5.23.2006)
JD: A year before making Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, Jack Nicholson and Monte Hellman collaborated on this black-and-white, Phillipines-set, WWII drama. This is a really unusual film that combines cinema verite realism, wooden B-movie acting, and some stylish battle scenes that may have influenced Stanley Kubrick when he made Full Metal Jacket. Back Door to Hell came out in 1964, right around the time that the situation in Vietnam was heating-up and it's interesting how the movie alludes to that conflict (although I'm not sure that's deliberate). It has some dull stretches, but I'd say it's probably Hellman's earliest reputable, generally high quality film. Movie rating: 6.5/10.
NK: While I agree that there's some wooden B-movie acting, the complete lack of subtitles does add some credibility. In one scene, Jack Nicholson did this weird move where his head entered the lower frame looking like he just woke up or something. Aside from no subs and some bizarre, sleepy Nicholson entrances, I was really into the excellent black-and-white cinematography and gorgeous depth shots. And whip pans are always appreciated. There are also some really cool action sequences that look almost like Leone or Peckinpah. Maybe it's just the club sandwich talking. Movie rating: 6.5/10.
SD: Nicholson gives a truly bizarre performance in this surprisingly enjoyable movie. He looks really handsome and his line delivery is funny to the point that we had to re-watch several scenes. He even starts speaking Japanese at one point. Crazy. The camera work is seriously amazing and I loved the zooms. A great deal of care clearly went into the compositions and the high contrast black-and-white photography (the stock war footage is also very effective). Overall, an excellent watch (and it ends with an extremely unusual quote choice, attributed to the "editors of LIFE"). Movie rating: 6.5/10.
The Candy Snatchers(Subversive Cinema, 9.27.2005)
JD: Anyone with an aversion to sleazy, low budget, exploitation filmmaking should obviously avoid this film like the plague. However, it's an exceptionally lively, original, entertaining piece of filmmaking. There are so many great visual ideas and characters, I really couldn't believe it. The film revolves around the kidnapping of a girl named Candy (get it?), whose father works in a jewelry store. However, it turns out he's her step-father and doesn't care if she lives or dies. Early in the film, her body is discovered by a bizarre mute kid who keeps running into his parents' crotches. For this character alone, this movie needs to be seen...repeatedly. But seriously, this is an incredibly disciplined, energetic, and provocative genre movie. Movie rating: 9/10.
NK: Repeatedly? This movie needs to be seen on a daily basis. You have to see the kid run into his parents' crotches to believe it. The dad actually smiles and seems to even have a moment of arousal. I don't really know how the hell anyone could even create such an absurd character as the mute, crotch-bumping kid, let alone in a violent, depraved kidnapping film that includes a pretty graphic rape scene. Towards the end of the film, things actually get kinda Home Alone-esque with the kid escaping from the bumbling criminals. Alas, there's no Pesci in sight. I also wanna give major props to the opening credit sequence with its unusual sound mixing. Gotta love the song too ("Money is the Root of All Happiness"). Lastly, this film features one of the more distinctive buried-alive scenes in cinematic history. Quentin Tarantino has clearly seen this film. Movie rating: 8.5/10.
SD: He certainly has. The ear slicing scene from Reservoir Dogs appears to be based on a similar scene in this movie. And man, the crazy violence at the end -- complete with a bloody hand-stomping and a guy getting shot point-blank in the face with a shotgun (and the trigger isn't even pulled by the person holding the gun) -- is seriously intense. This movie is pretty incredible. I've never seen anything like it, especially the amazingly freakish, morally disturbing ending. Even the end credits rule. Much respect is given to the the crotch-bumping mute kid, played by "Christophe" (no last name is given, just Christophe). To be honest, this seems appropriate, as this really is the Christophe show. The movie should be called Christophe. Forget about the kidnapping plot, this kid is the real reason to see this movie. Movie rating: 8/10.
The Reivers(Paramount Home Entertainment, 6.14.2005)
JD: This movie has the distinction of being the first dud of today's marathon. As a fan of Steve McQueen, I've been curious about this film for a while and it has acquired something of a sleeper, hidden gem reputation, but it really doesn't live up to the hype. This is an aggressively old-fashioned, simple-minded film -- from 1969, proving that not every film from that period was worthwhile and cutting edge -- with broad, annoyingly ingratiating performances and few if any surprises. Complete with nostalgic narration by the grown up version of the film's kid protagonist, this film is likely to appeal exclusively to people with nostalgic feelings about 1905 (ie. people in their 100s or little kids who don't know better). Everyone else, beware. That said, the photography (by Circle of Iron director Richard Moore) is quite good and Paramount has delivered a solid anamorphic transfer. Movie rating: 4/10.
NK: In addition to the other complaints (ie. The Werther's Original voice-over), this film has one of the most incessantly annoying scores in recent memory (composed by none other than John Williams). Seriously, this is TV movie bad. While this film regrettably lacks the genius talent of Christophe, it does feature a somewhat charming performance by Rupert Crosse (the smiley guy from Shadows) that even earned him an Oscar nod. Sadly, Crosse died just four years after this film was made. Movie rating: 4/10.
SD: I slept through the second half of this movie, which pretty much summarizes my feelings about the first half. Movie rating: 3/10 (for the first half).
The Fifth Cord(Blue Underground, 3.28.2006)
JD: This isn't an exceptionally original or innovative giallo, but it is one of the most visually impressive entries in that fringe Italian genre. Photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro, The Fifth Cord is filled with shots of tremendous visual imagination. Color (particularly the color blue), smoke, lenses, and light (or the absence of light) are all employed with tremendous precision, while the wildly inventive compositions and camera moves recall Storaro's better known 70s films, namely Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris. The Ennio Morricone score is quite good, but it's not one of his best (for that, see Danger: Diabolik, pretty much any spaghetti western he scored or another Morricone giallo, Dario Argento's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage). If you're looking for engaging narrative storytelling, look elsewhere. If you're looking for adventurous visual filmmaking, look no further. Movie rating: 7/10.
SD: All I wanna do is zooma-zoom-zoom-zoom! Every movie we've seen so far today uses zooms...and I love it. This movie looks amazing from start to finish. There are some really good stalking scenes, complete with lengthy killer POVs a la Halloween. One scene in particular stands out in my mind: the killer moving towards the audience/the camera, arms extended toward us -- he's narrowing in to strangle a young kid -- and all we see are his white hands emerging from the dark, moving forward. While his hands are consistently visible, his face and body are completely in the dark. Very creepy. Anyway, we just had some dinner and I'm feeling more alert. Movie rating: 7/10.
NK: This is surely one of the most attractive-looking of its kind, even if there are a few dull stretches. I especially loved those fish-eye looking shots and the architecture that somewhat resembles German Expressionism. Another major plus is the casting of Franco Nero of Django fame. While Nero doesn't carry a coffin full of deadly weapons, he does save the day in a bad-ass way. Check out the trailer for some more psychedelic editing and prolonged use of a Dr. Giggles-looking close-up that only lasts for a few seconds in the finished film. Movie rating: 6.5/10.
The Ape(TLA Releasing, 3.7.2006)
NK: Just when we thought we were safe from another snag, here comes the dud to end all duds. James Franco co-writes and directs one of the most obnoxious films I've seen in a while. There truly is not one redeeming element to this cinematic train-wreck. The cinematography (by David Klein, the DP of Clerks and Mallrats, two films known for their notoriously bad photography) is so wobbly that you'd think the film took place at sea, the dialogue is wretched, and the acting even more nause-aping. What else? I loath the pretentious Dostoevky/monkey sequences, the shallow Adaptation and Barton Fink-ness, the un-engaging/semi-anti-simetic office crap. Everything makes me regret watching this sober. Also, Franco repeatedly uses infuriatingly awful gestures that actually made me cringe. Come to think of it, throughout this entire film I was either cringing or clutching my fist. Movie rating: 2/10.
JD: Franco also sought out Kevin Smith's producer/co-editor Scott Mosier, which suggests that his technical ambitions were modest, to say the least. In spite of the shaky technical credits -- to be honest, the movie doesn't look that bad -- the real problem is the writing. Franco and his co-writer Merriwether Williams seem to have written this in real time, as every scene lacks purpose and, line-after-line, the dialogue plays like filler, desperately in search of a spine to hang on to...but it never finds one. If a good editor got a hold of this script, Franco would be left with 15 pages of script and the same one idea that the finished film attempts to coast by on (a man shares an apartment with an ape). There's really nothing here, but a bunch of crappy actors trying and failing to entertain. The only thing I liked in this movie was the opening credits (a real chimp holding up title cards) but, once that was over, I was just counting the minutes until this was over. Movie rating: 3/10.
SD: What's up with this monkey? I love any movie with a monkey in it (especially Project X), but I really dislike this particular monkey. It's a man dressed up as a monkey in a deliberately fake-looking costume. But why is it fake-looking? This is one messed-up, problematic movie. Like JD, I also enjoyed the opening credit sequence with real chimps, but even that was ruined by Franco's hyper-serious use of violin music. I have no idea what he was thinking when he embarked on this totally misguided monkey mission. Not recommended. At all. Movie rating: 2/10.
Mysterious Skin(TLA Releasing, 10.25.2005)
JD: For my money, this was one of the two best films of 2005 (along with The Squid and the Whale) and seeing it a second time reaffirmed my original impressions. The film has such a vivid, specific sense of its time, characters, and subject. Overflowing with detail and elegant, confident filmmaking, Mysterious Skin feels like a perfect realization of its goals. Gregg Araki has such a sure hand here that it's tempting to not mention his name for fear of alienating all the people who dislike his more erratic, hit-and-miss work from the past (Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere, Splendor). The key difference here is that he's working from a novel (by Scott Heim), rather than an original idea. It's also possible that Araki has simply grown and matured as a filmmaker. In any case, this is a beautifully balanced film, shifting back and forth between scenes that are confrontational and gentle, bleak and humane. Unlike pedophilia-oriented movies that preach or reach to make cynical, on-the-nose points (ie. Happiness), Araki has made a really complex, non-judgemental film that feels honest and compassionate from beginning to end. Movie rating: 10/10.
SD: I also enjoyed my second viewing of this movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has made some ballsy acting decisions lately. He was excellent in this year's neo-noir high school drama Brick and he's also good in this film, as a gay street hustler who was abused as a child. The parallel story of another boy who thinks he was abducted by aliens sounds a bit far-out, but it actually works amazingly well. This is a very focused look at some truly heartbreaking characters. The first time I saw it I thought it was overwhelmingly depressing. It's definitely bleak, but this time around I felt like there was hope for these characters. It's still difficult to watch, but worth it. Movie rating: 7.5/10.
NK: As a first time viewer, I gotta say this totally blew me away, though it didn't give me 50 dollars afterward like in the film. Content wise, the viewing experience can be very disturbing and unpleasant, but everything is entirely appropriate considering the bleak subject matter. Most of the gratuity is suggestive, which I certainly can't complain about. The narrative is carefully crafted in a My Own Private Idaho meets L.I.E. meets Crimes and Misdemeanors kind of way and the characters are painfully endearing. Levitt's performance reminds me of Heath Ledger's work in Brokeback (but with a Bruce Lee wig) and he really adds a lot of charisma to the lead. I also want to mention that that the film and DVD look wonderful and the score is truly unique and inspired. This is definitely Araki's best, in my book. Movie rating: 9/10.
Malevolence(Anchor Bay Entertainment, 4.19.2005)
JD: I caught this movie last summer and, as a huge horror fan, I was impressed by two surprising qualities: 1) the film's hybrid of slasher film and heist film conventions and 2) the excellent John Carpenter-inspired score (by writer-director Steven Mena). Upon second viewing, I was a little more sensitive to the film's bottom-of-the-barrell performances and overall cluelessness. Still, Malevolence deserves credit for trying something new and jumping through some surprising narrative hoops. Trapped in the middle of nowhere, our victims are subjected to two competing sets of villains: bank robbers and your basic, everyday, serial-killing nut jobs. If ever a film could use a slightly-more-expensive/professional Hollywood re-make, this is the film...as long as they hang on to that incredible score. Movie rating: 5.5/10.
NK: As the closing film of a fairly satisfactory marathon (thanks to Jack Nicholson, Christophe, smiley guy, Dr. Giggles, and some underage male homoeroticism), Malevolence was a pretty fulfilling experience. While I don't want to see it again any time soon, I'm very glad I finally checked it out. I also enjoyed the tasteful nods to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (there's even a meat hook shot), Halloween (with that awesome synthesizer score), and Friday the 13th 2 (a hooded/masked killer). Another thing to be thankful for is the great, freaky ending, a perfect way to end a day (and night) in front of a TV screen. Movie rating: 6.5/10.
Unfortunately, we lost Sarah at precisely 2:23 AM. For the second time today, she fell asleep and has yet to awake. However, it's worth noting that she was enthusiastic about the first half of Malevolence. In the end, DVD marathons are all about endurance and, as the clock strikes 3, we've reached our limit (for writing, if not watching).