Sunday, February 7, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 130


The Date: February 7
The Movie: Seven Samurai (1954)
What Is It?: In a day and age when every stupid comic book movie is obligated to be 175 hours long, it’s great to see a truly entertaining and substantial epic action film that doesn’t waste one of its many, many minutes.
Why Today?: Akira Kurosawa’s epic is 207 minutes long and today is 2/07.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 129


The Date: February 6
The Movie: Clash of the Titans (1981)
What Is It?: Ray Harryhausen’s final film mangles Greek mythology and has a hero and heroine who both go through the movie as if they’ve shared a sack of Quaaludes, but the master’s monsters may be his greatest ever. If nothing else, the Kraken, Calibos (sometimes stop-motion; sometimes actor Neil McCarthy), and Medusa all rank up there with the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts.
Why Today?: On this day in 1959, the first successful firing of the Titan intercontinental ballistic missile takes place at Cape Canaveral. They can’t all be happy anniversaries.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: 'The Graduate' Blu-ray


The Graduate sits in that small, honored clutch of films that are difficult to view objectively because they are so ingrained in the American consciousness.

A quick spin of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” instantly brings about images of Anne Bancroft seducing Dustin Hoffman’s adrift college grad Benjamin Braddock even though Simon’s lyrics have nothing to do with that. We would never think to question the decidedly un-Waspys Hoffman as such a Waspy character because he is Benjamin Braddock, who changed the way we peer into fish tanks and sink to the bottoms of swimming pools. “Are you trying to seduce me?” “Plastics.” “Elaine! Elaine!” They are all nondescript words and phrases on their own, and they all sway with meaning and memories and humor because of their place in Mike Nichols’s iconic film. And that film’s overpowering iconography cannot overpower pleasures that still remain fresh after almost fifty years (try saying that about Gone with the Wind and meaning it).  Buck Henry’s script is just as funny as ever. The damaged duo of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are just as poignant, and Hoffman and Bancroft’s performances remain brilliantly nuanced. The “Sounds of Silence/April Come She Will” sequence remains an absolute editing tour de force.


However, the film still has the ability to surprise, as Katharine Ross’s gut-wrenching turn as Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (who will apparently turn into a pumpkin if she doesn’t marry one of two pretty awful potential husbands within 48 hours) has not received as much attention throughout the years as it deserves. As Benjamin’s mom, Elizabeth Wilson gives a broad and hilarious performance that never feels like it was shipped in from some daffier movie. Also, the fact that Benjamin is really unstable often gets lost amidst the prevailing image of him as a sympathetic guy just trying to find direction in a world populated by middle-aged richies completely divorced from the fact that they’re living through a revolutionary decade.

Criterion’s new blu-ray edition of The Graduate allows many opportunities to be surprised all over again too. One of the quintessential films of American cinema has a rather European aesthetic, and its shadows are served well by a presentation that is dark and rich. The restoration is flawless. Supplements are plentiful, with a new 38-minute interview with Dustin Hoffman and a 25 minute one with Buck Henry and producer Lawrence Turman. These pieces get into the film’s inception and casting and how radical it was to put Hoffman in a role like this in 1967. There are archival interviews with Mike Nichols and Paul Simon, the only places among the extras that either of these major Graduate figures gets to speak. There’s also a short documentary from 1992 that repeats information from several of the other supplements but provides the only place to hear Katharine Ross talk about the film (sadly, Anne Bancroft’s first-hand accounts are missing from all supplements). There are screen tests with Hoffman and Ross and four other actors who probably would have been badly miscast as Benjamin and Elaine; an interview with Bobbie O’Steen, film history and widow of Graduate-editor Sam O’Steen; a couple of old audio commentaries (one with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh; one with film scholar Howard Suber); and additional conversation with Graduate fans such as David O. Russell, Harold Ramis, and Henry Rollins. The Graduate is one of the most essential movies that will ever land in the Criterion Collection, and the company does right by it through and through.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 128


The Date: February 5
The Movie: White Zombie (1932)
What Is It?: United Artists’ bid to get in on the monster craze is the only top-notch zombie picture of the thirties, and Lugosi kills as the brilliantly named zombie-master Murder Legendre. The composite score is excellent.
Why Today?: On this day in 1919, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks incorporated United Artists.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review: 'Devil Tales'


Forget Ol’ Brimstone Breath’s Biblical origins, or how he is so often used to make the superstitious feel guilt or shame or moral terror. Taken in simple stories that don’t shove the Psalms down your gullet, the Devil is one hell of a villain. The Frankenstein Monster does not have one iota of his strength. Dracula doesn’t have a smidgen of his power to enthrall and tempt and wield pure evil. The Phantom of the Opera’s abilities to punish pale in comparison to those of the Devil. The Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t as weird looking, as the Devil prances around with his goat legs, pointy tale, and candy-apple complexion.

All of this is why Satan has been such a regular fixture of tales of comic horror, and Steve Banes compiles a strange variety in IDW’s new anthology Devil Tales. Like the best stories of this sort, the ones in this collection are mostly short on puritanical finger wagging and God referencing and long on strangeness. In his brief introduction to the volume, Banes points out the most common Devil story clichés (stories of accidental soul-selling and ones that pivot on the great big twist “It was the Devil the entire time…gasp, choke!”), and (again mostly) steps around that dung heap of unoriginality with tales in which Lucifer sparks a gang war or tries to make a kindly couple fall in love with the hell-spawn he forces them to raise. There’s even a demonic crossword puzzle! Only occasionally is a tale skip-able, as when “The Devil’s Pact” drags its cloven feet through soul-selling clichés and churchy piety.

Culled from an array of titles, such as Adventures Into the Unknown, Tales of Horror, Web of Mystery, and The Purple Claw, the stories vary in quality, but often surprise. “Welcome to My School” has snappy, noir-ish writing stronger and wittier than one might expect from a fifties horror comic. “The King of Hades” is a wacky hunk of hilarity about a thug who gives Hell a makeover. Dick Ayer’s artwork for “Ghoul’s Gold” piles on the detail. Kenneth Landau’s for “Decapitation” is some of the most graphically gruesome I’ve seen in a tale from the early fifties. The devil appears as a hulking beast out of Fantasia, a withered old woman, a doofus in red PJs or blue underwear, a wax doll, a puppet, and in two instances, a tattoo. Best of all, Banes’s choices allow us to enjoy all the severed heads, devil babies, and candy-apple masters of darkness without feeling as though we have to spend an excruciating hour in Sunday school to atone for our transgressions. Hell yeah.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 127


The Date: February 4

The Movie: Creepshow (1982)

What Is It?: Like all portmanteaus, George Romero and Stephen King’s homage to E.C. Comics is hit-and-miss, but the opportunities to see Romero employ true comic book style, King act like a doofus, and EG Marshall get filled with roaches make Creepshow worthwhile.

Why Today?: On this day in 1940, George Romero is born.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: 'The Last Detail' Blu-ray


Hal Ashby was often fascinated with rebels, whether they be Woody Guthrie, The Rolling Stones, or an old lady who pokes death in the eye by attending funerals for fun and having sex with a rich kid a fraction of her age. One of Ashby’s finest films, The Last Detail, however, is about the failure to rebel.

18-year old sailor Larry (Randy Quaid) gets eight years in the brig for stealing forty bucks that he doesn’t even get to pocket from a polio donation box. Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson in one of his most Jack Nicholsony roles) is one of the naval officers tasked with transporting Larry to the brig, and he intends to treat the trip as R&R, spending his per diems on shitty beer, diner food, porno, and a trip to a depressing brothel. Mule (Otis Young) is along too, but he just wants to do the job without getting into any trouble that might jeopardize a naval career that is arguably preferable to whatever fate he would have otherwise faced as a black man in 1970s America. For all his boasting of being a bad ass, Buddusky does his grim duty and doesn’t really get to have much fun. In the end, his fate isn’t much different from Larry’s or most of the other folks’ in this picture. The brig, active service in the military, a brothel— in the end they’re all jails of one kind or another. 

However, the warm camaraderie between the three men makes The Last Detail fun despite its doomed atmosphere and degraded settings. And Ashby allows us a couple of fleeting glimpses of liberation. Although we seem to be invited to laugh at the members of a Shōshū chanting meet-up (Hi, Gilda Radner! Hi, guy who played Andy Andy on “Cheers”!) the sailors stumble into, the fact that the chanters seem so genuinely happy fascinates Larry and baffles Buddusky, who wrongfully believes he knows what living is about. The closest he comes is a jolly punch up with some marines in a train station crapper. But at least it is a happy moment for him. Sometimes a happy moment here or there is the most any of us can ask for.

The Last Detail comes to blu-ray from Twilight Time, and the picture is very grainy, pretty soft, and consistently dark. The blacks of the sailors’ P-coats and uniforms tend to blob together in an undifferentiated mass. These issues are probably more due to Ashby’s intended aesthetic than any mastering blunders. The print is very clean without any significant blemishes to speak of. Special features are limited to a trailer and isolated score track. Get the blu-ray here on Twilight Time's official site.
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