Jun 26, 2019

DER SAMURAI (2015)


On the audio commentary included on its Blu-ray release by Artsploitation Films, producer Linus de Paoli paraphrases a former film teacher when he says that every film has to leave at least some questions unanswered, for if every possible curiosity the audience held for a certain film were satisfied, it would make that film forgettable. Nothing about that film would linger in the audience's mind. Such a philosophy has fully informed the construct of Der Samurai, which presents a lot of questions and provides very little answers. And boy, audiences do not like this - especially the mainstream--and Der Samurai is as far away as one can get from mainstream before traditional narrative is left behind entirely.

Der Samurai has been described as a black comedy, or a Lynchian mind-twister replete with bouts of dark humor. The first is fully incorrect, and the second is pushing it, but closer to the truth. For once you get over the fact that, yeah, you're watching what's clearly a man (or a man-shaped being) walk around in a formal dress and kill random people with a samurai sword, all while not-so-subtly trying to convince poor Jakob (Michel Diercks) to desire him, there's not that much humor to be found. A moment or two allows some levity - the scene in which Jakob violently assaults a lawn ornament flamingo is beyond surreal and kind of comes out of nowhere - but Der Samurai appears to be playing its outlandish concept very straight. And a certain understated beauty comes out of that. Or it could very well be what was intended as humor gets lost in the utter madness unfolding before you, leaving you ready to accept that this slice of oddness over here isn't meant to be more or less funny than all the other oddness surrounding it.


Jakob, awkward in his own skin, is an outcast. He doesn't maintain any groups of friends and lives with his grandmother (his parents are deceased). And the fact that he's a police officer doesn't earn him even a modicum of respect from his community or superiors. He's lonely, and likely wrestling with the fact that he is homosexual (though this is never flat-out admitted). His comfort in the presence of girls, in any way other than his role as server/protector of the people, is lacking. He sadly dreams of making a cavalier move on a pretty girl nice enough to give him a ride...but it's all in his head - a quick and stolen daydream; in actuality, he's staring out her car window, unaware of what to say or how to act.

In the same way that Tom Hanks made audiences cry over a volley ball, or Bruce Campbell wrangled tears by playing an elderly dying Elvis mortally wounded by a mummy, Der Samurai is adept at triggering a surprising melancholy reaction despite all its surrounding insanity. The Samurai, who is never named anything beyond that (and who is never actually called that during the film), makes his appearance in an ominous fashion, immediately gaining the distrust of the audience. But throughout the one long dark night over which Der Samurai's events unfold, the dynamic between our two lead characters begins to slowly change. The Samurai begins to embody many different things to the tortured Jakob: first, an antagonist; then, a leery friend; finally, a subject of sexual desire - all before turning back around to becoming his antagonist again, only it's of a different sort: not of the sword-wielding psychopath, but of Jakob's refusal to admit who he is.


What may come off sounding like pretension is actually quite the opposite. Heavy themes aside, Der Samurai is wicked fun, strikingly directed, boasts an extremely brave performance from Pit Bukowski as The Samurai (see the film and you'll know why), and yeah, it does manage some mileage from some pretty dark gags. Seeing a man in a woman's dress taking off heads with a samurai sword is something that would likely never get old - but lucky us, we get that along with an engaging story, likable characters, and even a tug at the 'ol heartstrings. It just may be the most unorthodox romance in the history of cinema.

Please see Der Samurai. There's no promise that you'll love it, or like it, or even understand it, but films that possess such an individuality and which circumvent typical cinematic machinations need to be supported to encourage other filmmakers to make more of them. Der Samurai offers something that films very rarely offer: the chance to experience something as graphic, thrilling, and mystifying as it is touching--all while chopping off heads.


Der Samurai us available on Blu-ray from Artsploitation Films.

Jun 23, 2019

WISH UPON (2017)


Wish Upon feels like it should have seen release somewhere in the late ‘90s, where more fantastical teen thrillers like The Craft, The Faculty, and Disturbing Behavior were hitting theaters. There’s a certain novelty to it that, if nothing else, offers it its own identity in a crowded genre calendar. That Wish Upon also serves as the ultimate morality tale, heavily inspired by the immortal short story The Monkey’s Paw, too, helps it to stand off from the rest.

Otherwise, Wish Upon is woeful and inept to the point of accidental amusement, and you’ve got to hand it to the screenplay for being filled with such random bits that don’t really lead anywhere and offer any explanation. Joey King’s Clare is still haunted by the suicide of her mother a decade before, and with King consistently doing solid work in some popcorn favorites (The Conjuring, White House Down), the audience likes her because she’s a likable and spunky lead. She’s, rightfully, the foundation of Wish Upon, and her talents are a good start to a pic that otherwise goes amusingly off the track, and which introduces so many befuddling elements.

Like:

Why does Clare’s father (Ryan Phillippe) trash-pick professionally instead of just getting a job? 

Why does his passion for the saxophone never amount to anything

Why doesn’t their next door neighbor (an utterly wasted Sherilyn Fenn) seem to mind at all that she lives directly across the street from a family who has let their lawn grow over with weeds and is covered sky high in piles of trash?

Why is Jerry O’Connell in this for a ten-second cameo where he does nothing but scream?

What’s with the casual prejudice, like having the gay teen boy at a slumber party sleep on the floor half-in/half-out of the closet, or a scene in which Clare bribes a Chinese girl with “wontons”?

As Clare makes increasingly selfish and stupid wishes even after it’s established that they not only come true but KILL ANOTHER PERSON, are we supposed to be screaming “YOU MORON” at the screen?

Wish Upon entertains, there’s no doubt about that, and though it lacks the more interesting directorial flair that John R. Leonetti brought to Annabelle (even if he was borrowing from James Wan), the story at least keeps you engaged in a “how badly is Clare going to fuck up her life?” kind of way.

If nothing else, please watch this for the twist ending, which I imagine was supposed to be very shocking and very sad, but instead results in instant hilarity.

If you have a bratty teen son or daughter who needs a reality check, maybe you could make a case for ever finding a useful reason for Wish Upon. Or, if you were looking for unintentional amusement (or if you’ve always wanted to see Ryan Phillippe pretend to play the saxophone), you could do a lot worse. 


Jun 20, 2019

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)


There is no one on planet Earth more sick of zombies than I am. Even before The Walking Dead premiered to firmly launch both zombies and maudlin mediocrity into the mainstream, Danny Boyle’s “non-zombie” zombie movie, 28 Days Later… (it’s a zombie movie, btw), the Resident Evil franchise, and a thriving direct-to-video market ensured there would be no shortage of flesh-ripping clumsy ghouls. That zombie movies are still being made, not in spite of but directly because of The Walking Dead, has pushed the sub-genre to the stage of saturation, and regardless of well-meaning producers who claim to have done something different, they are all very much the same. A foreign body creates a virus; a virus creates a ghoul; a ghoul creates many ghouls; many ghouls create a ghoul apocalypse; a ghoul apocalypse creates a franchise; a franchise creates exasperation.

Upon the release of The Girl with All the Gifts, based on the novel by M.R. Carey, I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention. And when the words “dystopian future” and “young lead female character” filtered into my brain, I shut it down entirely, writing it off as yet another film based on an alternafuture young adult book series featuring a strong and plucky girl to lead yet another revolution.


Within moments of the film’s opening, I knew I was in for something different – and not a film ready to rely only on zombie carnage and helicopter shots of a post-human world. Instead, The Girl with All the Gifts is a philosophical, scientific, and at times alarmingly charming new take on the zombie story, looking beyond the cause of the zombie outbreak (called “hungries” here) and at a future where a zombie crossbreed species exists and calls into question the well-worn “us vs. them” concept that has been at the forefront of every zombie movie conflict. Told from the point of a young “girl” named Melanie (an extraordinary Sennia Nanua), one of a dozen special children being held in captivity and studied by what appears to be the last of the world’s military, The Girl with All the Gifts looks not to the far reaches of outer space, a government lab, or to an unspoken cause for all the zombiery on which our characters can ruminate. It looks to the very world we inhabit – something birthed from nature – that brings about the downfall of man. A far less stupid version of The Happening, but with the same basic concept, The Girl with All the Gifts suggests that our planet soon tires of us and relies on fungus – yes, fungus – to bring about the destruction of man.

Director Colm McCarthy, making his feature directorial debut after a long career in television, wants to take this material as seriously as a Vietnam-era George Romero, Danny Boyle, or even Jim Mickle with his underappreciated Mulberry Street, and he does quite handily, falling back and letting the camera linger on intimate environments and small moments between characters. Astoundingly, the audience is thrust into the same confusing environments where Melanie thrives, but where we’re struggling to put together who she is, where she is, and what’s being done to her, she’s instead existing in a place where she always has; she knows nothing else about the outside world, so the cold manner in which she’s treated by the soldiers who point automatic weapons at her face as her shackles are done, or undone, isn’t the least bit surreal to her. That’s been her whole life. 

And this is where The Girl with All the Gifts will begin to feel familiar.


At the core of every zombie movie has been the aforementioned “us vs. them” conflict, but always with a suggestion that the “us” had the potential to be far more monstrous than the “them.” Helen Justineau (Gemma Arteron) is the special children’s teacher; someone who shows them kindness and love. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) wants to cut them open and look for the cure to the infection she believes to be inside. Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) hovers somewhere in between, not allowing his empathy for young Melanie to supersede his purpose and drive to survive. The Girl with All the Gifts tows that familiar line but with new and ponderous ways, leaving you to wonder about the final sequence and what it means – who’s really in charge? And who, really, is the enemy? Us, or them?

The very unusual musical score by composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer, comprised of a chorus of robotic-sounding human voices and something akin to a theremin, sounds both utterly foreign but completely appropriate for the zombie-ridden environment. It also makes for one of the best musical scores of the year. There aren’t too many instances when the audioscape comes alive in the typical blockbuster movie sense, but when there’s carnage, you hear it — so much that it nearly pierces you with its surprising intensity.

Zombie fans unfettered by mass consumption of their favorite ghouligans have no reason not to love The Girl with All the Gifts. Even those, like me, who need a long breather from the zombie phenomenon will find a lot to respect and adore in this latest take on the walking dead. Anchored in place by a preternaturally confident performance by Sennia Nanua, it’s the best kind of horror film one could ever hope to see — something that’s not just horrific, but about something. 

Jun 17, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: ‘US’ IS NO SOPHOMORE SLUMP


At this point, Jordan Peele is only two films into a career as a director, and already he’s successfully established his own brand – as easily, or even more easily than M. Night Shymalan did when he debuted with The Sixth Sense all those years ago. Effortlessly, Peele has established what a Jordan Peele film looks like, feels like, and what it’s about. This branding, of sorts, becomes apparent as early as the opening credits for his newest film, Us, over which plays an unusual, vocal-driven piece by composer Michael Abels. However, Peele isn’t interested in regurgitating his race-based runaway film debut, Get Out. This time around, despite a similar satirical look at American culture as it pertains to wealth disparities as well as its “work hard/play hard” mentality, Us’s story is more comfortable rooting itself in a higher-concept, almost Twilight Zone-inspired environment. What that means is US more comfortably resides in the horror genre, which, I would think, makes it a bit more accessible to viewers put off by his race-driven debut.

Get Out, while injecting a healthy amount of humor into the horror, is an angry film. Though the anger is well-disguised, it delved heavily into matters regarding racism, and more specifically, cultural appropriation. Us packs more of a visceral punch, leaning more on violence and gore gags than Get Out did, but without rendering it as strictly pulpy but ultimately empty horror. Us has every bit a purpose as Get Out, but it strives toward different goals in presenting that purpose to the audience. 


If you’ve seen Us and delved into the subtext contained within, by now, you’ve likely seen interviews with Peele in which he breaks down the film’s most mooted line of dialogue: when Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) asks her family’s terrifying doppelgangers who they are, her shadow double, named Red, replies simply, “We’re Americans.” What may sound like an abstract answer is a pretty blunt statement from Peele about the origin of his screen monsters. They don’t hail from a distant land, or planet, or another dimension. They are flesh and blood and they exist in the same country as “normal” Americans. They just happen to exist below it instead of on its surface. (I’m assuming that the title Us is a play on “the U.S.”)

Even if you’re not interested in subtext (and Peele’s films are designed to be at least engaging and thrilling if you’re not), Us still packs a hell of a horror wallop. The opening sequence in which a young Adelaide wanders off from her drunken father and across a nighttime beach with a lightning-infused sky behind her feels wrong, but we don’t yet know why. And once she ends up in an isolated carnival house of mirrors where she encounters her equally young double for the first time, it’s unnerving, but again, without relying on anything obviously scary. And as for the doppelgangers’ first long-shot appearance, forget it: it’s fucking eerie, especially when Adelaide asks her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), what’s out in the yard of their vacation home, and he responds, in total befuddlement, “It’s…a family.”


Putting the horror aside, Us is also unexpectedly poignant and beautiful at times, especially during the final act when Adelaide has her final encounter with her subterranean double, and in an unexpected moment of connection between them, Red tells Adelaide, “If it weren't for you, I never would've danced at all.” In spite of the horror we’ve seen Red and her brood inflict upon Adelaide and her family over the course of Us, we’re still taken aback by this moment of…what is it? Empathy? Understanding? Appreciation? Maybe resentment, as Adelaide dancing on the surface of the earth was the thing that made Red realize just how empty her existence really is?

And, lastly, there’s the humor. As expected, based on Peele’s comedy beginnings and the light touch he administered throughout Get Out, Us also manages to be very funny at times, with Winston Duke’s Gabe stealing nearly every scene he’s in. Tim Heidecker, from the insane Tim And Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job, and Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men), appear as friends of the Wilson family, which leads to some amusing exchanges between the two, getting a lot of morbid mileage from what appears to be a near-loveless marriage. (That their vacation home is much more opulent than the Wilsons’ is a sly comment on wealth disparity.)


Universal has been hit or miss with the amount of special features on their releases as of late, but thankfully, Us has been given a healthy collection of special features, all of which give Peele the chance to talk about the intent behind Us, what he was trying to say, and what he wanted to do. “Scene Explorations” looks at a handful of notable scenes from the film and breaks down how they were made. “The Duality of Us” is the most contextual feature on the disc, as Peele talks thematically about certain concepts. “The Monsters Within Us” sits down with the cast as they talk about playing the Wilsons along with their sinister doubles. “Tethered Together: Making Us Twice” looks at the challenges involved in having your primary cast play double roles and what’s involved from a technical standpoint. “Redefining a Genre: Jordan Peele's Brand of Horror” is a love-fest regarding Peele from those who have worked with him, but Peele also gets the chance to talk about his influences. “Becoming Red" offers a fly-on-the-wall look at N’yongo’s staggering transformation. Other featurettes include “Seven Second Massacre,” “It's a Trap,” and “I Just Want My Little Girl Back.” A wealth of deleted scenes, outtakes, and an extended look at the final dance sequence round out the remaining special features. (No commentary from Peele, which is an immediate thumbs down.)

Us is absolutely no sophomore slump. Every bit as worthy as Peele’s celebrated and critically adored debut, and perhaps better, Us is horrific, poignant, and somehow hilarious, solidifying Peele’s place as a fresh new voice in the genre. Whether or nor you’re on board with Peele’s approach to the genre, his is a voice that the genre desperately needs right now, if nothing more than to remind critics and audiences that the genre is capable of so much more than what we often get -- more importantly: that it’s just as deserving of the celebration and conversation as more mainstream genres. 

Us is now on Blu-ray from Universal Studios.


[Reprinted from the Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 15, 2019

THE VHS EFFECT: FAREWELL TO A FRIEND


It started off innocently enough.

“Maybe I’ll just upgrade JAWS. I hear the picture on the new DVD is excellent. And it’ll be nice to get rid of this bulky two-tape version.”

My intentions were good. Even pure. Why not obtain my absolute favorite film at its technical best? Why couldn’t that be the lone exception to my otherwise “VHS only” mindset? It’s not like buying one DVD would open the door to ditching all my VHS tapes.

No way that would happen. No. Way.

…But it did.

The transition was slow. Barely noticeable. At first my reasoning dictated that the titles I chose to upgrade had to benefit from the dynamism that only DVD could offer.

Die Hard.

The Perfect Storm.

Even Speed!

And then there were the less showy films I absolutely loved and wanted at their best.

Session 9.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Ace Fuckin’ Ventura.

It just got way out of control way too fast. Before I knew it, I was trading in tapes hand-over-fist, or selling them online for substantial cash. I was delighted to accumulate shelf space; to regain “the whole film experience” (a widescreen aspect ratio); to look at my VHS collection with a more critical eye and determine if I really, truly needed to own Mountaintop Motel Massacre. (Spoiler: I did. But I would realize it far too late.)

My first VHS purchase was a Blockbuster exclusive release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was 1995, I was in fifth grade, and I had ridden my bike six miles to obtain it. For ten years following, I would be an avid collector, amassing well over a thousand tapes (including seven different VHS iterations of Halloween). Stacks of tapes were brought home nearly every weekend, and from multiple choice spots--from the shiniest Hollywood Videos to the scummiest farmer's markets. Special excursions, reserved only for every so often, found us in nearby cities in video stores bigger than libraries, and it was there that you could actually purchase titles off the rental shelf. Personal points of pride during this rich period were Return of the Living Dead, Phantasm III, and Eraserhead, in their original, uncut cases. I planned it so that my one thousandth tape purchase was Freddy vs. Jason, a film I not only unabashedly loved, but which also represented the culmination of the franchises that cemented my love for the genre at a young age. My last tape purchase would be Tod Browning’s macabre masterpiece Freaks, two years following the release of the final VHS tape by a major studio (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence).

During this recent VHS resurgence, commemorated by the loving retrospective documentaries Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking, I’ve found myself looking on in sad awe at the featured collections not unlike the one I used to have, recalling my own oddball titles, and whispering to the impassioned collectors on screen, “I used to be one of you.”

VHS was magic. A time capsule. A revolution. The next step in loving film. No longer was the flickering picture on the silver theater screen confined only to your memory, nor was the one-time chance to catch its rare airing on broadcast television your only redemption. You could wait, patiently, for West Coast Video or your local mom-n-pop store to begin selling off their excess rental copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, or you could snap it up on release day, brand new, for a paltry $99. Either way, those pizza-loving heroes in a half-shelf had to be yours—and they would be, at any cost.

VHS encouraged casual film fans to become collectors, and organically, these collectors became cineastes, swapping tapes with gleeful conspirators, clamoring to see the newest, greatest discovery. Little-seen films spread from person to person like a beautiful virus. Small films that made small splashes in theaters were appropriated by legions of fans and eventually became favorites. It no longer mattered that The Monster Squad failed to ignite at the theatrical box office; on video, it would, instead, ignite the imaginations of horror-loving children (as it did mine)—over and over again.

Like most things, VHS wasn’t fully appreciated until after it had passed away. DVD had taken off like a rocket, so the purging of this magnetic tape technology was a sad inevitability. But the change didn’t really hit home until video stores went through their own transformation. No longer on their shelves were there handfuls of warm, inviting cardboard covers stuffed with styrofoam blocks proudly showing off a reworked iteration of the film’s theatrical poster; in their places were cold plastic cases in capitalistic amounts, labeled in sterile company fonts, automaton-like in their uniformity.

In the beginning of the DVD transition, everyone had questions.

“What does that mean for the ocean of VHS tapes already in the world? What about someone like me who refuses to upgrade to DVD? What if I accidentally break or lose my copy of Batman or Clerks? Will studios still be making new ones? And what if my VCR takes a shit? Will stores still carry them? How much longer will VCRs be produced if companies are no longer putting newer films on VHS?”

“What’s going to happen to my collection?”

Overnight, VHS went from a premier technology to a clunky pile of hard plastic stacked in every corner of every living room, where certain titles would be cherry-picked before the leftovers hit the goodwill box or garbage can. This thing that had literally changed the way people discovered and loved films had instantly been looked upon like a bad dream: quivery picture, the “pan and scan” frame, and except for the very rare release, no special features to speak of.

We even had to rewind them! What cavemen we were!

VHS to DVD was a massive quality upgrade—we know this—but there’s no denying that it left much of collecting’s magic behind. Sure, films had become available in their directors’ original aspect ratios, with their preferred color timings permanently locked into that digital sea of ones and zeroes, never to fade as their magnetic tape counterparts began to dissolve. Mind-blowing releases like Anchor Bay’s four-disc Dawn of the Dead provided fans with every alternate cut of their favorite film to enjoy, and massive supplements to pore over—all which provided fabulous new heights of appreciation for a horror staple. Admittedly, it was an exciting time to be a film collector—especially horror. But for each title resurrected in a brand new digital release, a little mystique was taken from it in the process. Because certain films wear their age and budget like a badge of honor. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is one—a low-budget, late-‘70s, semi-sequel to his bonafide classic Night of the Living Dead. If you’re like me—born after the theatrical bows of many 1970s-'80s classics and therefore were only able to experience them in your friends’ basements—you discovered Dawn of the Dead like I did: with a forbidden VHS tape, smuggled into the house behind your back, to be played only after double- and triple-checking that your mother had gone to bed for the night.

Films like Dawn of the Dead felt forbidden; relics from another time; created and then instantly forgotten. Same for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Hills Have Eyes (films that actually play better the shittier they look). Without previous knowledge of that baggage “classic” label, they felt dangerous and not meant for human eyes, and this feeling of obscurity became married to the entire VHS format. There was an excitement in going to record-and-tape traders, pawnshops, yard sales, and flea markets, never knowing what you would find. Forget Dawn of the Dead—stumbling upon those really aloof titles like Crazy Fat Ethel 2, or Dead Meat, or this fever dream I once had called Gore-Met: Zombie Chef from Hell, felt tantamount to discovering pornography at thirteen. It was exciting to explore this uncharted territory, always with the sensation that you should not be doing this. Because…anyone could make a film and put it on VHS. And knowing that, what madness awaited you? Sliding a mysterious tape into your VCR became Russian Roulette: you had no idea if you were going to have the best night of your life or the worst. Films of this questionable pedigree felt even more forbidden post-DVD when knowing these particular titles hadn’t been salvaged and transported into the new format. And maybe they never would be. Maybe VHS copies and the occasional one-sheet sold on eBay would be the final sign, long after their original casts and crews have died off, that these films actually existed. For every schlock title like The Pit or Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror that was resurrected for DVD, a little magic was lost. Films that felt like your little secret suddenly had Amazon description pages and appeared in DVD review columns of print and online publications. People hadn’t forgotten these films existed after all, and it ruined the fun—just a little.

If that weren't bad enough, there was, and is, another issue plaguing collectors—the physical tapes themselves.

Within the recognition that nothing lasts forever, the very components of VHS technology are especially temporary. With each viewing of your film of choice, the magnetic tape within degrades—just a little. Incrementally. Over time, your repeated viewings begin to manifest in the form of scrolling lines, fuzzy scenes, or a white flash-bang explosion as your VCR struggles through two inches of splicing tape. Whether you watch that VHS religiously, or once every few years, the clock is ticking on its integrity, and there is nothing you can do about it. Store it in the most ideal environment, sans humidity, temperature-moderated, sealed in plastic—that tape is going to rot. While this is the worst aspect of the technology, it’s also a philosophy that should extend to every aspect of your life. Your relationships, your passions, your life’s work—it’s all as temporary as your copies of Split Second or Pumpkinhead 2. Nothing lasts. Everything is fleeting.

Cherish what you have while you have it.

One sole VHS tape remains in my semi-possession—via joint ownership with a chap named Brian, my good friend of many years. The final holdout to have survived my magnetic tape purge—my love for it, and what it represents—is a constant reminder of what I gave away. Yes, that used copy of Commando I’d purchased for three dollars all those years ago is still going strong. (It’s outlived two VCRs and is currently dominating a third.) It doesn’t play nearly as well now as it did thirteen years and three hundred viewings ago, but it’s still willing to tell us the same thrilling story of rescue and revenge and absurd masculinity, now sporting an array of scrolling distress lines over the scenes we rewind over and over. (They usually involve Sully.) Effort is made to watch it at least once a month when we get together—even just a few minutes. We easily pick up where we left off, whether it’s John Matrix leaping from an airplane’s landing gear or arch villain Bennett waxing philosophically about the worth of men. Like a good friend, the film stops when the night ends and loyally waits for us to pick it back up at our next session. That tape might as well be a photograph, or a journal entry. It has played over and over during bad breakups, first houses, new jobs, the passing of family and friends. It’s captured life, in snippets, and it represents me: what I love, who I love, and the simple things that bring me pleasure. (And as John Matrix always says, “Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure.”)

One of the most conflicting movements in recent years has been that of the VHS revival. Like vinyl, which had momentarily regressed into an easy punchline to signify someone’s out-of-touchness with the times, the VHS resurrection is romantic and inspiring...but also a little sad. It’s romantic because this very people-led rebirth, far from the money-driven clutches of film studios or distributors, is refusing to let the format die. These collectors of the past are traversing the world to find the most random title, the most obscure release, to rescue it from the tote or shelf or cardboard box where it’s spent most of its post-digital life—all to give it a permanent home.

That’s a beautiful thing, and they are beautiful for doing it.

But the VHS rebirth is, like I said, also a little sad.

Because, well…

I used to be one of them.


[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 13, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: BLUE VELVET (1986) [CRITERION COLLECTION]


Filmmakers come and go, and while some of them manage to make some fantastic films, very few are lucky to have a style—something that makes their names and their films synonymous with each other—something that, if you’ve seen previous films from that same director in the past, you’ll immediately recognize as being part of his or her oeuvre. One of these filmmakers, absolutely, is David Lynch.

1986’s Blue Velvet almost serves as a precursor or a spiritual prequel/pilot to his most well-known work, Twin Peaks. After all, both are about the discovery of a dead body (in Blue Velvet’s case, an ear) leading its lead investigator (in both cases, a gentle Kyle MacLachlan) down a rabbit hole of depravity, surreality, and total quirkiness. Both take place in small towns whose economies are driven by the lumber industry, both boast a small charming diner where young lovers meet and conspire, and both even feature its hero investigator oddly and enthusiastically commenting on his drink of choice.  (“Man I like Heineken. Do you like Heineken?”) 

If you’re familiar with Lynch’s filmography, you’ll know that he is capable of offering a very broad approach to filmmaking. He’s done straightforward, accessible, and even mainstream films like 1980’s The Elephant Man or the Disney-financed true-life tale The Straight Story, all the way across the spectrum to the downright experimental and nearly inaccessible Inland EmpireBlue Velvet falls somewhere in the middle of the accessibility scale. The plot, while existing in a strange landscape filled with stranger characters and even stranger motivations, is straightforward. If you’re paying attention, you remain keenly aware of the plot and its various machinations. Blue Velvet isn’t one of Lynch’s vehicles where you turn to look at your movie-watching partner and admit, as the credits are rolling, that you have no idea what’s transpired those previous two hours. 

Having said that, Blue Velvet is still absolutely an acquired taste. The plot is easy to follow, but that doesn’t make the film easy to watch, which mostly (but not fully) has to do with Dennis Hopper’s astonishingly unhinged performance as crime boss/sexual deviant/rapist/murderer Frank Booth. Lynch and Hopper, in cahoots, created one of cinema’s most unseemly, discomforting, psychotic characters. Booth, sucking back on an ammonia nitrate tank, can either slither across the screen, or come barreling across like a wrecking ball gone rogue. (Hopper shares an amusing anecdote in an interview featured in this release that details how he’d suggested to Lynch that Booth be sucking on ammonia nitrate, rather than the originally intended helium, as the former has chemicals that can alter the mind. Helium does nothing for a body’s biology rather than giving its user a high-pitched cartoon voice, and Hopper recollects thinking, “David Lynch is out of his mind,” realizing after the fact that using helium would have made Frank Booth even crazier.) There aren’t enough synonyms in the world to convey Booth’s sociopathy and Hopper’s dedication to bringing him to life, making him as terrifying as possible. 


Normally, Lynch likes to dangle clues in front of the viewer, allowing them to piece together the story—if not Lynch’s own intention for his story, then at least enough for the viewer to forge his or her own interpretation. Blue Velvet’s opening moments take care of this handily, leaving no room for debate: opening shots of a quaint and charming town, a smiling and waving fireman with his faithful station house Dalmatian at his side, and just behind him, rows of picket fences and perfect blooming roses. But the camera doesn’t stop there, at surface level—instead, it dives deep beneath the grass where those roses grow until coming up on a horde of subterranean insects clawing and climbing over each other, filmed in icky close-up, giving them beastly proportions. Beneath perfect suburban sprawl, Lynch posits, lies its seamy underbelly. 

In fact, compared to head scratchers Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr, neither of which offer an easy path to at least one interpretation, Blue Velvet is seemingly about so many things: it’s a sobering and exaggerated look at fear of commitment, a skewering look at suburbanism, and even a comment on sexual domination. In ways that go beyond the physical, its three primary leads are all guilty of rape in their own way: Jeffrey’s insertion of himself into Dorothy’s life and the extended sequence during which he spies on her from her closet as she suffers a sexual attrack; Dorothy’s subsequent discovery of him and their near-sex scene that she administers at knife point; and most obviously, Frank Booth’s perceived ownership of Dorothy’s body to satisfy his most depraved needs. Everyone is looking to everyone else to fulfill their own unhealthy desires, some of whom simply want it, while others seem to think they need it. Jeffrey looks to Dorothy to satisfy his fantasies that go beyond boring suburban sweetness (Laura Dern’s character, in effect), Dorothy looks to Jeffrey for comfort, and Booth, well…Booth is out of his mind, and wants simple, animalistic satisfaction. 


MGM, back when its home video division gave a damn, previously released Blue Velvet to Blu-ray for its 25th anniversary with commendable results. However, eight years later, the Criterion Collection have given this Lynch favorite a stunning upgrade in every sense. The PQ on this release is staggering—near perfect and crisp, but without sacrificing any of Lynch’s typically hazy, soft, and dreamlike environments. Criterion wisely ported over MGM’s 70-minute retrospective, “Blue Velvet Revisited,”which offers a staggering amount of information on the production. Nearly every major cast and crew member are on hand, including archival VHS-era interviews with Lynch. The newly produced featurette, “It’s a Strange World,” catches up with a few crew members, including props master Shaw Burney (who claims credit for Dean Stockwell’s utility light karaoke microphone), and Steadicam operator Dan Kneece, who recalls with discernible wonder how Blue Velvet was not just an opportunity to collaborate with the director, but that it was the first of many over the years; Kneece has shot nearly every single one of Lynch’s features since then. Rounding out the special features are an interview with frequent Lynch composer and unexpectedly Bronx-accented Angelo Baddalamenti; “Test Chart” - vintage test footage; “The Lost Footage” - a collection of deleted scenes and alternate takes; and “Room to Dream” – an audio recording of Lynch reading from his recently released memoir.  


If this reviewer’s words carry any weight at all, then Blue Velvet is Lynch’s masterpiece along with Lost Highway, and this new release from the Criterion Collection is the easiest recommended upgrade in the world. Besting its previous incarnation in every way, Blue Velvet continues to live on in the way that it deserves, and joins its colleagues Eraserhead and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the famed Criterion Collection closet.

Jun 12, 2019

THE INCIDENT (1967)


There is a very real psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, which deduces that the more people present during an event which would normally require intervention to diffuse a violent or traumatic conflict, the less likely that anyone will do so. Basically, if two people witness something where intervention would be necessary, those two are more likely to intervene than if ten or fifteen people were at the same scene. The idea is that the feeling of responsibility for coming to someone’s aid becomes dispersed amongst all those who are present, and with everyone waiting for another individual to make the attempt, no one ultimately will. (Yay mankind!)

The Incident, which plays out as a bleak and uncomfortable combination of 12 Angry Men and The Taking of Pelham 123, is a cinematic embodiment of this phenomenon and a fascinating character study about fear, anger, racism, and loneliness. Like a Frank Weegee photograph come to life, the black and white photography not only captures the seediness and despair of a late ‘60s-era New York, it also provides every single character with an implied backstory about his or her experiences. Before they end up on that fateful subway train for an excruciating real-time 45-minute ride, we meet every single character. None of them are at particular high points in their lives: many are angry; some are victimized by their husband or wife or lover; some are excruciatingly lonely and looking for intimacy; and some are in a bad way and need help from someone waiting for them on the other side of that subway train ride. These characters bring their backstories and personalities to that subway ride and colors how they will react to the conflict unfolding within. 


Director Larry Peerce and writer Nicholas Baehr made a very New York film that is not complimentary of New York. Every single character is in a bad way; no one is happy. People aren’t just being victimized by two hoods on a train (with two audacious and excruciating performances by Martin Sheen and Tony Musante); they’re being victimized within their relationships, or by society at large, or by their own lives or desires. And on that subway train, some riders speak out against their harassers, begging them or even ordering them to stop. But some don’t. Some ride in silence, shying away from their harassers or even falling for their mock empathy. How some of these riders react to their torturers mirror how they reacted to their own partners before stepping onto that train. Likewise, those riders who exerted dominance over their own partners were soon dominated by one of the two hoods. It’s bloodcurdling yet fascinating to watch unfold — like a car wreck on the side of the road, only the audience sees it unfold in real time.

As the tension on the train car increases, the audience wants it to stop — would, also, like some of its characters, beg for it to stop. And an idea begins to creep in that there are a handful of young and able-bodied men on that train who could easily, if working together, disarm the two punks. But no one ever has that idea. Sure, as one after another they are victimized and terrorized, they trade awkward glances to other riders with pleading eyes, hoping for someone to intervene. But no one does. Everyone cowers, even behind those making empty threats to call the police — somehow, on a subway train, traveling 60 miles an hour.


For those who have never before experienced The Incident, it sneaks up on you like a sucker punch to the gut, sending you to your knees. It’s ugly, and bleak, and very cynical, and when it’s over, you walk away feeling as if you, yourself, were on that same subway train. There is very little physical violence used, beyond the very opening and the very closing of the film; throughout, however, it’s very psychologically violent, and doesn’t make for an easy watch. 

Those with strong stomachs and an affinity for challenging cinema need to ride this train. Those who don’t need the reminder that in this world it’s every man for himself need to get off at the next stop.

The Incident is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.