Thursday, October 30, 2014

WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series DVD review

Cult classic sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, now making its complete series DVD debut, takes viewers to a much different time – before iPods and Sirius, when AM radio was still a very real thing that people listened to and relied on for news and entertainment. Yes, radio had character, and helped dictate and define our culture, pop and otherwise. Running for four seasons on CBS, from 1978 to ‘82 – a period of major transition in America – WKRP was a wacky workplace comedy that helped pave the way for shows like The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation today. To discuss what makes the series tick, one must first understand its lunatic cast of characters, who are at the root of every episode, every laugh and every plot development. There are eight principles that can be broken down into three categories.

Management: Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) is WKRP’s sometimes bumbling but always good-hearted station manager, also known affectionately as “The Big Guy.” Though from time to time he appears to possess a modicum of business acumen, for the most part, he’d rather not be bothered with the day-to-day operations of the station, instead focusing on his hobbies, which include fishing and model trains. The series kicks off with Carlson’s hiring of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) as the station’s new program director. The level-headed center of the bunch, Travis has been living town to town, up and down the dial, and doesn’t see WKRP as anything more than another stop in his career of rebranding stations and making them profitable. Soon enough, he’ll discover there’s something special about this station that keeps him from moving on to the next one. Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), Carlson’s bombshell-with-brains secretary, shouldn’t technically fit under management, and yet as the series progresses, it becomes all too clear that without the glue that is Jennifer, the entire enterprise would fall to pieces.

The Disc Jockeys: Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) is the station’s morning drive man. Like Travis, Johnny’s worked at more stations than he can remember, though that may have more to do with years of drug and alcohol use, which is more hinted at than ever explored. Fever is the show’s wild card, and WKRP never shies away from throwing bizarre, unpredictable plotlines in his path. Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) is Andy’s first move upon changing the station’s format to rock and roll, hiring the jock “away from a station in New Orleans.” Shrouded in a mysterious past, Venus takes care of the evening shift, playing soothing, laid-back tunes for the greater Cincinnati area. WKRP peels away the Venus onion, giving him a little more backstory every season, and one of the show’s very last episodes (“The Creation of Venus”) brilliantly redefines his introduction way back in the two-part pilot.

Read the rest of the character breakdown, as well as the entire review, by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night

If there’s one thing that continues to amaze me about Doctor Who, or more specifically its fans, it’s all the wildly different reactions — most of them valid — to any given episode. I make no claim to offer up definitive interpretations or reactions in my recaps, and likewise it’s frequently baffling when someone insists that a particular episode is awful or without redeeming qualities. Doctor Who often plays its points of view broadly enough that it inevitably leads to differing readings. Pick the greatest and most hailed episode of the series — "Blink," for instance — and somewhere out there is somebody who’ll explain to you how it’s indulgent, poorly written garbage riddled with conundrums, and they might actually have a point. This is a big reason why Doctor Who is great TV: It means something different to every person who watches it, and no two people see it the same way.

With those qualifiers out of the way, "In the Forest of the Night" is the first episode of the season that, for me, doesn’t work within the thematic framework of the ongoing storyline. Yet looking at it objectively, say as a standalone story not related to the bigger seasonal arc, it feels cruel to pick on it or pull it apart. It’s like tearing into Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are for not playing to the adults in the house. This season, which has been so fraught with interpersonal conflict, has been a pretty specific thing, and all of a sudden for this one episode it feels like something that it wasn’t before (and judging by the preview for next week, doesn’t look like it will be again). It’s jarring at this particular juncture, coming right before the finale in which all hell (or perhaps heaven) is about to break loose. It’s too cute, too syrupy sweet — like this season’s been a charging locomotive and here it suddenly runs into a wall of Jet-Puffed marshmallow creme.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Doctor Who: Flatline

Honest to Pete, it’d be nice if this season could deliver just one truly awful installment, so as a recapper I could have a little fun tearing into the show for a week. (Somewhere out there someone’s saying, “Dude, you had your chance with “Robot of Sherwood” and you blew it.”) “Flatline” continues this unexpectedly wonderful season of Doctor Who by delivering an alien threat unlike anything the series has ever showcased. It simultaneously harkens back to Tom Baker’s swan song, “Logopolis,” in which the TARDIS shrank with the Doctor inside.

The episode demands attention from its opening sequence. A man places an emergency call, frantically babbling about “they” being “everywhere” only to disappear mid-sentence and reappear as a smeared painting on the wall behind where he was standing. The way the camera moves and tilts to reveal his face is like one of those street paintings that only comes into focus when you see it from a certain angle. Sure enough, “Flatline” centers on an alien invasion from a two-dimensional universe, and in ours their deadly handiwork ends up looking like street art – a bizarrely weird idea worthy of Moffat himself, but dreamed up by Jamie Mathieson, who also penned last week’s outing.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Innocents: The Criterion Blu-ray review

[Note: Screengrabs are taken from the MGM DVD release.]

Two big budget studio ghost stories from the early sixties are cinematic siblings, a notion exacerbated by the fact that in both cases the ghosts may (or may not) be products of overactive imaginations. Those classic films are The Innocents and The Haunting. The latter seemingly steals most of the thunder from the former, but now that Criterion has stepped up to the plate, maybe The Innocents will get some long overdue kudos and love. Based on the 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Innocents borrows its title from a stage adaptation by William Archibald, who also worked on the screenplay. Director Jack Clayton wasn’t satisfied with Archibald’s work, so he turned to no less than Truman Capote, who whipped the script into shape, and created the blueprint from which Clayton eventually worked.


Deborah Kerr stars as spinster Miss Giddens, hired by a disinterested uncle (Michael Redgrave) as governess to orphans Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin, in her film debut) at his palatial but crumbling country estate, Bly. Though Bly’s grounds include a staff headed by housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), Giddens is firmly in charge of the children, and any decisions made about their welfare and well being are entirely in her hands. Giddens learns of the recent troubled history of the estate, namely the untimely deaths of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the uncle’s valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). Soon enough, the visions begin. First Quint and then later Jessel torment Giddens, pushing her to the brink of sanity. The more she learns of the deceased, sexually deviant coupling, the more frenzied she becomes. Soon, Giddens is convinced the pair has evil, dastardly plans for the children, and she’ll go to any lengths to save them.


As to the possible existence of these ghosts, The Innocents is played so squarely down the middle that it really can go either way, and I don’t believe I’ve ever found it as ambiguous as I did upon viewing it via this new Criterion edition. This is to the film’s credit, because in the real world, we (well, most of us) don’t immediately believe someone who says they’ve seen a ghost. Those of us who do not give a season pass on our DVR to Ghost Hunters tend to be skeptical of such claims. The key to appreciating the movie on a level different than ghost story, I believe, is in the viewer’s ability to take Mrs. Grose seriously and not just write her off as a daft old woman who could never understand the supernatural. Because she’s the only other adult playing a major role in the proceedings, and as the movie never shows her as anything other than kindly and wise, her view of events must not only count, but is also crucial. And though Mrs. Grose is far too polite to ever say anything, she clearly believes Miss Giddens to be nucking futs.


I’ve experienced The Innocents on a couple previous formats over the years – official MGM laserdisc and DVD releases - and both were above average presentations, showcasing the movie with a clean print and in its proper Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. And yet this Criterion Blu-ray with its spotless 4K transfer remains something of a revelation. This is the sort of movie Blu-ray was made for, as every monochrome frame of The Innocents is crammed with detail that can finally be pored over and analyzed in a home setting like never before. One even wonders if the movie looked this ideal in its original theatrical release.


Blu-ray Extras: Cultural historian Christopher Frayling pulls double duty here, with a 23-minute introduction, as well as helming the commentary track. Though there is a fair amount of overlap between the two, I have to give the guy some props: He’s engaging to listen to and seems to know more than anyone else about this movie; indeed, he may even know more than the people who created it. A new 19-minute interview features cinematographer John Bailey discussing Innocents DP extraordinaire Freddie Francis and his approach to the film and working relationship with Clayton. A relatively short piece (14 minutes) on the making of the film, entitled “Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty,” briefly features Francis himself, as well as editor Jim Clark and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis. It’s a shame that someone didn’t (or wasn’t able to) round up Pamela Franklin and/or Martin Stephens for commentary as their POVs would seem invaluable to Innocents discussion. The disc also features the film’s trailer and the inner booklet offers up an essay entitled “Forbidden Games” by Maitland McDonagh. From an extras standpoint, not one of Criterion’s strongest showings, but as is nearly always the case with this company, the exceptional film presentation is the real star.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express

After last week’s episode, aspects of which seemingly half of Whoville had big problems accepting, it must be reassuring for disgruntled fans to get back to the basics with the far more plausible idea of an invisible mummy stalking people on a flying space train. What’s been so wonderful about this season so far is that no matter how outlandish the plots have been, the emotion-driven, personal aspects have been thoroughly down to earth and relatable. A communication breakdown – the inability for two people to understand each other’s position – must be one of the most common causes of emotional stress and pain, and Doctor Who is seemingly devoting an entire season to exploring it through the lens of the fantastic.

After Clara’s blowup, there was every reason to assume she might not feature in “Mummy,” and all of the publicity over the past week seemed to confirm that. Shrewd marketing BBC and BBC America folk, keeping Clara entirely out of the picture, right up until the episode aired and she stepped from the TARDIS alongside the Doctor, both dressed to the nines. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, can somebody please release some proper publicity shots of Jenna looking so magnificent and classy in her flapper garb? We want those to make memes out of to share back and forth on Facebook. The silver PJ’s were pretty keen, too. I should go ahead and say this if it isn’t already obvious: I am in companion love with Clara, which hasn’t happened for me since Rose Tyler (and long before her, Sarah Jane Smith). Companion love is potentially dangerous, because you become so invested in the fate of the character, that you begin finding it difficult to imagine the show without her, which is never a reasonable place to be as a Doctor Who fan.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Doctor Who: Kill the Moon

Doctor Who is no stranger to outrageous, unbelievable plots. One could even say the show has practically been built on them. “Kill the Moon” is cut from a cloth that emphasizes emotional wallop and wonder over hard science, and for some folks that could be a difficult hurdle to overcome. If you’re one of the yeahright people (as in “Yeeeaah, right!”), there’s a good chance this episode left you wanting something a little more grounded in reality. But if you’re a Doctor Who fan, and surely you must be or you wouldn’t be reading this, you’re used to suspending pachyderm-sized amounts of disbelief. If you can do that with “Kill the Moon,” it’s a dazzling foray into the beautiful, demanding, and strange, cobbled together around a thrilling sense of uncertainty.

Right off the bat it grabs the viewer with an utterly compelling pre-credits sequence. At first it seemed a function of the script to join the proceedings mid-adventure—as if we’ve been thrown into the middle of a real time episode: 45 minutes are on the countdown timer, Clara and her student Courtney are in the midst of something perilous, and the Doctor is nowhere to be found. Surely he’ll show up to save the day? We’ll find out soon enough that "Kill the Moon" isn’t nearly that predictable. Indeed, whatever criticisms one might have of the episode, predictability surely can’t be one of them (except for one thing, but we’ll come to that).

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Doctor Who: The Caretaker

However you might react to “The Caretaker,” hopefully everyone will at least agree that, given the setup of the season so far, it’s a story that needed to be told, and halfway through the season seems a good time to tell it. We’ve been frustratingly teased with the Doctor/Clara/Danny triangle for the past four episodes, curious to know where it’s headed. Where opinions will differ, I imagine, is over the manner in which the story is told.

The bulk of the triangle’s tease has revolved around Clara’s deceptions, which crumble entirely in "The Caretaker," thanks to the Doctor covertly scheduling an alien invasion intervention in Miss Oswald’s backyard, Coal Hill Secondary School, and finally coming face to face with her boyfriend (and vice versa). One of the cheapest-looking aliens the new series has unveiled, the Skovox Blitzer is attracted to the area because of all the artron emissions, which were likely left by the Doctor himself since the TARDIS materializes and dematerializes at the school regularly, not to mention his numerous other visits to the area in his past lives. The invasion storyline is so rote and B-movie in scope that it must exist only to serve as a basic introduction for Danny to the world of Clara and the Doctor. In any case, the Doctor either hasn’t considered that he may actually be responsible for the alien’s presence, or he has and has chosen to take care of business and not mention that part (to Danny he outright denies it). Either is a real possibility with the Twelfth Doctor.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Doctor Who: Time Heist

Show of hands: Who else guessed the identity of the Architect as soon as the premise was thrown out there? It wasn’t that there were any particular clues, but with an episode that, per its title, involves time travel, and with X amount of characters on display early on, it seemed sort of obvious. But more detrimental to the perception of this episode is that it arrives on the heels of the groundbreaking “Listen,” which the internet quickly declared one of the best Doctor Who episodes, evah! (It was pretty brill.) Having said all of that, there’s plenty to dig about this episode, starting with Clara’s clothes dryer, and the Doctor being mesmerized by it, which strikes me as quite comical.

It’s that simple domesticity versus unimaginable adventures in time and space that fuels much of the Doctor/Clara dynamic right now. She’s perfectly happy at home, doing Clara things, such as going on a second date with Danny Pink. He’s bored traveling alone, enough so that staring into her dryer holds more revelations than visiting the Crab Nebula. So when the TARDIS phone rings and Clara hasn’t left for her date yet, of course he’ll answer it, at which point they’re instantly propelled into an adventure they know nothing about, alongside two people they do not recognize, Psi (Jonathan Bailey), a cyborg, and Saibra (Pippa Bennett -Warner), a shape-shifter whose look might be modeled on Grace Jones in A View to a Kill.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Zero Theorem

As someone who’s been a disciple of all things Terry Gilliam for the better part of 30 years, it seems pretty obvious that his most innovative filmmaking days are probably behind him. Those of us that continue to return to his well keep our expectations firmly in check. We don’t expect mind blowing Brazil-level satirical explorations, or profound science fiction trips such as 12 Monkeys, but we are happy to indulge our favorite mad uncle when he unveils something a little less groundbreaking, from somewhere in between, and that’s more or less what The Zero Theorem is.

Set in some nearby hazy nether-future – a grotesque exaggeration of our own reality – the film revolves around hypochondriacal misanthrope Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, looking like Bob Geldof after he shaved all his hair off in The Wall), a number-crunching programmer working for a soul-sucking mega-corporation called Mancom. He appears to be more than adept at his job, but awful at the rest of life. With virtually no social skills to speak of, Qohen (pronounced “Cohen”), when he isn’t at work, keeps himself holed up in a dilapidated mansion in a sketchy part of town, waiting for a mysterious phone call that he hopes will bring change. His sole desire is to be allowed to work from home, so he can be close to the phone and away from people.

Read the rest of this movie review by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath Blu-ray review

Wait a minute! Wasn’t this just on my TV a few weeks ago!? Yes, the feature-length season premiere of Doctor Who, entitled “Deep Breath,” has already made its way to Blu-ray (and DVD), and to entice you into picking up a copy, the BBC has added a few nifty extras that we’ll get to shortly.

The 80-minute Victorian-set, steampunk infused adventure that properly introduced viewers to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor has already been reviewed here at STARLOG by Matt Delhauer, who had mixed feelings about it, although I wrote a gushing recap over at Vulture, because I’m really rather in love with the whole thing.

The one caveat worth adding at this point is that “Deep Breath,” despite being the beginning of a new era of the series, is probably not a great place for newbies to start. It’s far too rooted in much of the lore set up over the past few seasons to make much sense to someone unfamiliar with the series in recent times. Therefore if you’re a budding Whovian, resist the urges to skip ahead blindly into Capaldi’s maiden voyage as the Doctor.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting STARLOG.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Doctor Who: Listen

Part of the genius of Season Three’s benchmark “Blink” is how utterly standalone it is, which is why it’s often the go-to installment to show to newbies: The ride can be enjoyed with virtually no knowledge of the Who mythos. “Listen” comes from a different direction; our protagonists are front and center throughout the episode, and far more so than “Into the Dalek,” this feels like a proper introduction to the world of Danny Pink. Whereas “Blink” was about Sally Sparrow and angels that nobody had seen before, this is about the Doctor, Clara, Danny, and ghosts that nobody will ever see.

Perhaps the real difference between the two is where Steven Moffat is as a Doctor Who writer. Back in season three, he was a scribe for hire, likely eager to make another defining mark, but now he’s been the showrunner for five years. Moffat may no longer have any interest in telling a Who story that doesn’t involve the mythos he’s created or is in the process of creating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long he can occasionally churn out an episode this inventive. Surely one of the most unexpected, abstract episodes the series has produced since Moffat took over as head writer, “Listen” is the sort of fare that should have the torch-wielding villagers ceasing their charge…well, until the next episode, anyway. The show can’t tell stories like this each week, or everyone’s kids would end up in therapy.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Mark Gatiss: Robot of Sherwood Interview

Mark Gatiss writes and acts, and we could have an intense debate over which he does better. You’ve seen him onscreen in Game of Thrones as Tycho Nestoris, of the Iron Bank of Braavos, a role he’ll be reprising next year. Even more prominent is his ongoing stint as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s devious brother in Sherlock, the series he not only writes for and stars in, but also co-created and co-produces with Steven Moffat. Yet we rang up Gatiss to chat about Doctor Who, Moffat’s other series, for which Gatiss wrote this past weekend’s episode, entitled “Robot of Sherwood.”


I had a great laugh — many laughs — watching “Robot of Sherwood.”

Oh, good!

As much as I love Doctor Who, I can’t say that it’s often that I have a big grin across my face through an episode.

The whole intention was to write a kind of romp, really. I’ve always loved the Errol Flynn movie. I love Robin Hood, actually, but that film particularly. To me, the essence of Robin Hood is that it’s a fairy tale. I’ve never had much patience for the muggy, grim versions because I think they’re missing the point, really [laughs]! So the chance to do Robin Hood meets Doctor Who was a bit irresistible.

Read the rest of my interview with Mark by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood

Season Eight has been dark so far, but I don’t think I realized exactly how dark the first two episodes were until I started watching “Robot of Sherwood,” an episode which triggered a huge grin that refused to go away throughout the episode. And it was sort of a relief, because perhaps we needed to be reminded that this show is still capable of and not shy about making us laugh. This is no slight against all the other episodes, but I can’t recall the last time I had so much unbridled fun watching a new episode of Doctor Who. Here the Doctor declares he detests banter. Thankfully writer Mark Gatiss does not, because this episode overflows with witty repartee.

The series hasn’t had a celebrity historical for quite some time. Nothing in season seven unless you count Hugh Bonneville’s Henry Avery. Season six made a joke of Hitler and Nixon figured into its opening two-parter. But there arguably hasn’t been a proper one of these since “Vincent and the Doctor” way back in the fifth season. At that time, based on the strength of the material, I wondered if writer Richard Curtis had maybe “ruined” the format by making the definitive example of it, but here comes “Robot of Sherwood” to thankfully prove me wrong. Maybe the gimmick just needed a good rest, as there have been times when it felt positively strained (I’m looking at you “The Unicorn and the Wasp”).

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

After 50 years of Dalek stories, it cannot be easy coming up with something that hasn’t been done before — something that can also be realized on the TV screen. Having exhausted our view of the Daleks from the outside, the show takes viewers inside of one, in an episode that is less about Daleks and more about soldiers and what the cost is for being one; pretty weighty fare by Doctor Who standards, to be sure, though the episode never takes it quite as far as it could’ve.

“Into the Dalek” begins in the middle of an epic space battle, inside the ship of Lieutenant Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton, easily the stand out guest star). Seconds before her death, the Doctor materializes the TARDIS around her, saving her from certain destruction. After threatening him, and the Doctor smooth talking her into saying please, the pair head for her nearby space station of origin, the Aristotle, where the Doctor’s disdain for the military is evident (“Dry your eyes, Journey Blue. Crying’s for civilians…how we communicate with you lot”). Finally, the hook: a war torn, battled-scarred Dalek that is hurt and in pain…yet has somehow miraculously turned “good” via its hatred for all things Dalek. Can the Doctor repair it, the crew wants to know? (It’s never explained whythey care.) One thing’s for sure: He can’t do it alone.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Since last we spoke, loyal readers, it’s been eight months of equal parts anticipation and dread. The former because it’s a new Doctor played by an enormously talented actor whose TV résumé dates all the way back to the time when Peter Davison was still playing the part. The latter because the head writer and lead creative mind on the show is still Steven Moffat, who last time we checked in with him at Christmas proved that even he can cock-up the end of an era that he spent four years shepherding. Would he actually be able to deliver on all of the promises he’s made in the intervening months that we’d be getting a new, reinvigorated version of Doctor Who?

With only one episode down, it’s impossible to answer that question, but based on this 80-minute opener, the future looks tight. To rework some classic dialogue from the Master, an entire season of this level of quality scarcely bears thinking about. Here we’ve been blessed with an episode of Doctor Who that feels like cinema. The scenes play out for four and five minutes at a time. The script isn’t in a rush to get to the end. The performances feel as though they’re building toward something fresh and new, rather than being built upon something that previously existed. The amount of quotable dialogue could make up its own recap. And yet it’s never, ever an “everything but the kitchen sink” type of affair. It has to be one of Moffat’s finest, most restrained and well thought out Who scripts.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Leviathan: Blu-ray review

In 1989, there were no less than three underwater sci-fi thrillers in cinemas, but only one truly made waves: James Cameron’s masterpiece The Abyss (seriously, a case can be made that it’s his best movie, even if it isn’t his highest grossing or the most popular). The other two films – Deep Star Six and Leviathan – were released prior to Cameron’s movie and failed to find much of a theatrical audience. Eventually, both films moved on to rest comfortably on many a video store shelf, where they found viewers looking for a Friday night distraction. And while Deep Star Six has never really received a decent home video release here in the States, Scream Factory has stepped up to the plate to deliver a nice little Blu-ray of Leviathan.

Set miles below the surface in an underwater mining station, Leviathan tells the story of workers who discover a sunken Russian ship (named ‘Leviathan’), and inadvertently bring aboard an alien evil residing in its bowels. One by one, it begins to pick them off, yet death is not quite the final word for this motley crew. As you might surmise, Leviathan is short on originality, shamelessly cribbing from Alien, Aliens and Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. Curiously enough, aside from its setting, Leviathan bears almost no resemblance to The Abyss.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting STARLOG.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery Blu-ray review

With the steady, ongoing rise of streaming media, encyclopedic TV-on-Disc collections are heading the way of the dodo bird. So when a classy Blu-ray box set such as Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery hits the market, it’s worthy of celebration. Peaks, with its modest number of installments (30 episodes, two of which are movie-length), is the perfect show to which extra-special treatment should be given, especially in light of its cult following—which, ironically, has increased over recent years thanks to the series’ availability on streaming.

As with the Peaks Gold Box DVD collection from 2007, content producer Charles de Lauzirika is the man that should be celebrated here. Among de Lauzirika’s other home video credits are The Alien Quadrilogy and Blade Runner: The Final Cut, so the guy knows what fans want and this Blu-ray is no exception. But before moving on to the fine collection de Lauzirika has assembled, let’s talk Peaks for a bit.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting Starlog.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Scanners: The Criterion Blu-ray / DVD Combo review

It’s difficult to calculate the exact influence the work of David Cronenberg has had on sci-fi film and what the genre might be like without him. His work, or at least the first half of his career, so squarely belongs to Cronenberg that it’s entirely possible his absence wouldn’t make a big difference at all, as nobody can do Cronenberg like Cronenberg. Even Cronenberg arguably had a tough time of conveying his specific brand of sci-fi by the time he got to eXistenZ in 1999, which to date remains his last completely original screenplay.

But a new Criterion release demands that we travel all the way back to 1981, when American audiences were considerably less familiar with the Canadian filmmaker. Despite having made a half a dozen features prior to it, Scanners was the movie that put Cronenberg on everyone’s radar, and it blew their minds…


Read the rest of this review by clicking here and visiting STARLOG.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The Criterion Blu-ray / DVD Combo review

Back when I first saw 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in the mid ‘90s, we didn’t have the internet. And the Criterion laserdisc I owned (one of the very last Criterion laserdisc releases) was bare bones, so beyond the film itself, there was no information on it. If memory serves me correctly, for some time I believed it to be based on a true story, and the movie’s opening intro, coupled with its mission to not answer its central mystery, might lead anyone to believe that it is. It just seemed like a highly artistic interpretation of real events. And it still does today, though via this brand new Criterion edition, decked with numerous bells and whistles, it’s easier to discover the truth, which is that Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a fictitious novel by a lady named Joan Lindsay – a paperback copy of which is included in this set.

Hanging Rock - from a distance
The story at first revolves around a girl’s school in Victoria, Australia, in 1900, and the students’ St. Valentine’s Day outing to the imposing volcanic monument, Hanging Rock (which is a very real place). Upon arrival, quiet weirdness abounds, and after several lazy, dreamlike hours, three of the girls and one of the teachers have gone missing. The second half of the film studies the effects the disappearances have on not only the school, but also the nearby town and its variety of residents. It is, after all, a small town at the turn of the century where people do not just disappear.

Mrs. Appleyard passive-aggressively terrorizes Sara
The movie is crammed with ideas, thoughts, and feelings, expressed through an intricate, restrained drawing of its numerous characters, with the repression of the time period leading to people unable to properly communicate their fears, hopes, and desires. Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the severe, imposing school headmistress, takes out her frustrations on the awkward student, Sara (Margaret Nelson), while the much younger and more vibrant Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) is wracked with guilt over her inaction the day of the picnic. The befuddled Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts), who leads the investigation and search party to find the missing, continually finds himself at a loss for words (his position, coupled with his resemblance to Graham Chapman, leads to a frequent expectation for him to finally break out with an “All right! All right! All right!”).

Michael and Albert spy the schoolgirls headed for the rock
The privileged young English boy Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard, who, for my Whovian brethren, played Olvir in “Terminus”) is haunted by the disappearances more than anyone else, and he makes it his mission to find out what happened, regardless of the potential cost to his own well being. By contrast, his blue collar Aussie acquaintance, Albert (a young John Jarratt, the bad guy of Wolf Creek), is haunted by his own past, and has closer ties to the school than he could ever know. Not every struggle in Hanging Rock is caused by the mystery, yet they often appear to be reflected in it.

Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda
What is perhaps most absorbing about Hanging Rock is not the characters we spend time with throughout the entire film, but rather the missing girls, led by the luminescent Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), and their intellectual math instructor, Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) – all of whom cast a potent spell in the 40 or so minutes of screentime they have. Lambert is a cinematic angel, and her visage haunts the movie long after she’s gone, just as it does the viewer after the credits roll. But these days Gray’s McCraw is my favorite. The steely, calculating teacher, enlightened with a knowledge of the world that Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson would appreciate, appears to be living out of time and place. McCraw hypnotizes, not least because the movie dishes even less on her disappearance than the others. The film strongly suggests that the rock awakens something primal and perhaps even sexual in these women – something they were unable to tap into or unleash in the society they had grown up a part of, but that the rock opened, and they found inviting.

Mlle. de Poitiers (l) and Miss McCraw (r)
Yet those assertions are more my interpretation than anything else. Picnic at Hanging Rock should mean something different for each viewer. It’s that kind of movie, and the open-ended narrative is the lack of punctuation on an unfinished sentence. It’s an exercise in mood and sound (the music ranges from classical works to Zamfir’s pan flute to evocative original compositions), and most certainly stunning cinematography by Russell Boyd. Though it was not director Peter Weir’s debut film, it was the one that introduced his considerable talents to the world. Weir has since gone on to helm some truly incredible films over the course of his long career, though there’s not a one of them I wouldn’t put up against Hanging Rock just to demonstrate how strong the movie really is.

Lastly, keep an eye out for a very young Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook), who receives theatrical billing much higher on the marquee than her character - an amorous maid working at the school – demands. Off the cuff: Anyone else often find themselves playing games of “Is that Jacki Weaver or Sally Struthers?”

   

Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Picnic at Hanging Rock arrives in a dual format combo single Blu-ray/ two DVD set, which is a recent Criterion experiment that apparently, as of last Friday’s announcement, will be halted come September. Bit of a shame, really. I can see how DVD consumers would have issues with the price increase, but Blu-ray enthusiasts that “didn’t like making room for DVDs they didn’t want” just smacks of the oft-ridiculed first world problems. As a Blu-ray freak, I am always happy to get a free DVD with my purchase, Criterion or not, so I didn’t even really have time to warm up to this new presentation before it was dispensed with. In any case, the movie looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous and the 5.1 surround track more than gets the job done. Weir uses both pictures and sound to weave his tapestry, and both are surely tighter here than on any previous Region A/1 release. 

At the top of this piece I mentioned the Criterion laserdisc. It was followed by a bare bones DVD edition in 1999, and now, 15 years later, we have this hulking combo set that includes the paperback novel. Seriously, when the package arrived, I thought there were two movies enclosed. After all this time, Criterion rectifies those previous meager presentations with a host of lovingly prepared goodies.

Extras kick off with a 10-minute introduction by film scholar David Thomson, which is followed by an enlightening 25-minute interview with Weir - a welcome inclusion, as he meditates and dishes on all things Hanging. Likewise, “Everything Begins and Ends” is a 30-minute doc featuring interviews with producers Hal and Jim McElroy, exec producer Patricia Lovell, DP Russell Boyd, and cast members Anne-Louise Lambert and Helen Morse. At first glance it would be easy to take this disc to task for not featuring a commentary track, but between the Weir interview and the doc, there’s really no need for one as plenty of ground is covered, and Hanging Rock is not the kind of movie that viewers should be walked through scene by scene anyway. 

Additionally, there’s a theatrical trailer, and 26-minute period doc from ’75 entitled “A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900,” much of which is shot at Hanging Rock, including further interviews with Joan Lindsay, Dominic Guard, Weir, and others. Lastly, on the video side of things, there’s a 50-minute black and white short film called Homesdale. It was this movie that led exec producer Lovell to hire Weir to helm Hanging Rock, though why that is remains yet another mystery, as the tone, feel and subject matter of the short isn’t much like the feature film. Even Weir seems puzzled by the fact in the interview piece. (Frankly, Homesdale is such an oddball piece, its weirdness makes Hanging Rock seem pretty straightforward by comparison – perhaps therein lies the answer.) 

In addition to the Lindsay paperback, this edition includes a beautiful 28-page inner booklet, laced with stills from the movie, and featuring a new essay by author Megan Abbott entitled “What We See and What We Seem,” as well as an excerpted piece from a 1996 book on Weir, by Marek Haltof, entitled “Peter Weir and the Australian New Wave Cinema.”

All screengrabs in this piece were taken from the DVD.




Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Live and Let Die

Pimpmobiles. Alligators. A trip through Harlem. Voodoo. Cigars. Blaxploitation. George Martin. Bourbon and water. Tarot Cards. Snakes. The City of New Orleans. Paul McCartney and Wings.

“That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” – 007 in Goldfinger

Somebody’s out to prove Roger Moore ain’t your daddy’s James Bond.

On the calendar, 007 entered the ‘70s with Sean Connery’s last official entry, Diamonds are Forever, but it wasn’t until two years later in 1973 that the shift of the decade really affected cinema’s most popular secret agent.

The Plot: Three MI6 agents are killed – one each in New York, New Orleans, and the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. M (Bernard Lee) assigns Bond (Moore) to the case. He follows the trail of bodies, only to discover an elaborate heroin producing, smuggling and selling operation, masterminded by the ruthless San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), who operates under heavy makeup stateside as Mr. Big, where the goods are dispersed through a chain of soul food restaurant/bars called Fillet of Soul. But faux voodoo and mysticism surround Bond from the word go, as does the hypnotic spell cast over him by Kananga’s delicately beautiful reader of cards and seer of visions, Solitaire (Jane Seymour).

The Girls: Nabbing the role of lead Bond girl must seem exciting for an unknown actress, but as has been proven repeatedly, it rarely leads to a big time career. Seymour is one of a handful of actresses to buck that trend and with good reason: Solitaire ranks high on the list of Bond’s classiest ladies, and her story is arguably the heart of the picture. The character isn’t necessarily written with a huge amount of depth, yet that very simplicity makes her complex. In a movie full of charlatanistic voodoo, she stands out as the lone figure possessing the psychic ability to see into the future. Additionally, she differs from the Bond girl flock by sporting ornate, body-covering costumes that contrast with the oft-expected “Bond girl in a bikini” mold. And she’s a virgin, until James enters her, um, life.

Read the rest by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.