The New Old: A Week of Modern Problems

Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) – Polanski’s classic tale of murder, corruption, municipal politics, and familial deceit boasts one of the greatest screenplays of all time, courtesy of screenwriter Robert Towne, and arguably Jack Nicholson’s most iconic performance as private eye Jake Gittes. Arriving in a new Blu-ray package, one of the greatest gumshoe epics of all time gets its best treatment yet.

Set against the backdrop of the California water wars of the early to mid 20th century during the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brings fresh water from the mountains and through the meadows of the Sunshine State to the thriving metropolis near the coast, Gittes originally gets hired to investigate a case of martial infidelity against the former owner of all water and power rights to the city, but he eventually gets caught up in a grander case involving backstabbing business partners, angry property owners, a dangerous romance, and a dark secret at the heart of one of the city’s most powerful aristocratic families.

Must viewing for all film buffs and boasting an expectedly strong 1080p image and clear sound mix, Chinatown has had many things written about Polanski’s visual flair and sense of pacing, and Towne’s screenplay, but the new Blu-ray includes some interesting historical context for the mystery at the heart of the film. A fascinating three part documentary (totalling about 80 minutes) looks very specifically about the construction of the aqueduct, and it adds quite a bit to subsequent viewings of the film that many people might not have noticed the first time around unless they lived through the era. The documentary also doesn’t shy away from taking a more modern perspective on the original controversy, suggesting that in some cases the city’s growth might be doing even greater harm to natural wetlands than the original construction of the pipeline did.

In terms of looking at the actual production itself, there are three archival featurettes that look at the making of the film from start to finish with recollections from Polanski, Towne, Nicholson, and producer Robert Evans that remain the best personal accounts cineastes can look to for information, but the real joy here is to watch and hear other filmmakers from outside the project positively geeking out about how influential the film has become. In a featurette titled “An Appreciation,” directors Stephen Soderbergh and Kimberly Pearce, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer James Newton Howard talk about their love for the movie and offer keen and original insights that you probably couldn’t get anywhere else. On the film’s commentary track, director David Fincher teams up with Towne to talk about the writing and production process. Fincher can barely contain his excitement to be talking about one of his favourite films of all time, and he might even be looking into the film more deeply than Towne originally did. Overall, the disc is a wonderful blend of the new school and old school coming together to talk about one of the most authentic historical noirs ever created.

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Alf (TV, Various, 1986-1990) – Lasting only long enough to make its way to syndication and boasting one of the most ill advised series finales of all time, Alf was still a cultural landmark in the 1980s with an inescapable marketing push and an inexplicable propensity to make people say “no problem” like an Atlantic City hustler and to chase housecats with hopes of eating them. Well, maybe not that second part.

While the show doesn’t hold up for modern viewing, Alf makes for an interesting time capsule, since he’s the epitome of 80s television. Essentially a modern, upwardly mobile alien of the 80s from the destroyed planet of Melmac, the furry Gordon Shumway (played by series creator Paul Fusco) crash lands in the shed of the middle class American Tanner family where he resides to lie low and out of the eye of the probing feds and the nosy neighbour next door Mrs. Ochmonek. Alf both annoys and teaches life lessons to his not always gracious hosts.

Alf typifies the propensity for 80s sitcoms to wax nostalgic for the sake of baby boomers and to aim as broad as possible to push the show on kids who would bug those same parents to buy all the merchandise they could fit in their rooms. As embarrassed as I am to say it now, I was one of those kids. Now that I watch episodes from the first four seasons and find hamfisted references to Woodstock, the Eisenhower and Bush Sr. administrations, VHS tapes, medicalert necklaces, daytime game shows, Innerspace, shock jock TV hosts, Elvis Presley sightings, and even the Star Wars defence programme, I can’t really see just why the show appealed to me in the first place. Maybe I was more amused back in the day. But now, the show does have an interesting shaggy quality today.

It’s a shame that despite all 35 hours of the four seasons of the show being available in one package, there hasn’t been any work done to them since the original single season releases. The sound is fine, but the picture quality is barely above most VHS bootlegs. While there might never be any true expose of just how painful the show was to make and how the cast hated going to work every day, the special features here are still pretty lacking. Included are the original unaired pilot (which underwent reshoots after it just too long to get to the point, but really isn’t too different), an episode of the short lived animated series that chronicled Alf’s life on Melmac, mildly amusing animate menus with Alf explaining episodes and performing skits, a blooper reel apparently made between cast members trying not to swear, trivia, and several Easter Eggs. 80s completists and die hard fans still smarting at the show’s downer non-ending (despite the arrival of the TV movie Project Alf in 1996, which sadly isn’t included here), will get a kick out of this, but it still feels oddly like something you would pick up as a $2 impulse buy at a yard sale.

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Modern Problems (1981, Ken Shapiro) – Shortly after leaving his star making gig on Saturday Night Live, everyone’s favourite once and future comedic asshole king Chevy Chase reunited with The Groove Tube writer/director Shapiro for this hopelessly dated and even more hopelessly unfunny comedy about a hapless, overworked, and recently single air traffic controller who develops telekinetic abilities after an encounter with some toxic sludge on the highway one night.

With about 25 minutes of unfunny set-up in a less than 90 minute movie that focuses on the “modern problems” in the title, Shapiro and a direly unfunny Chevy dig themselves a huge hole early that they blast wide open once Chase’s character decides to use his newfound powers to bang his ex and get revenge on his ex-wife and a blow hard self help author (Dabney Coleman). The misogyny of this film is as staggering as it is off-putting with every woman on screen playing the worst stereotypes possible. It doesn’t help that the jokes have become dated to the point of irrelevance. Remember when answering machine tapes never worked? Remember when car sunroofs had cranks? Remember when people selling pre-fab sandwiches at work tried to gouge you for $3.50? If these remembrances sound funny to you… well, you should probably still steer clear of this.

The re-released DVD is almost a non-entity, with the picture quality as grainy as the print it came from and an alright sound mix that just amplifies what might be one of the worst film scores in history. A nightmarish blending of the same four notes over and over again, that score will haunt your dreams.

The Terrorists (1974, Caspar Wrede) – Though the transfer of this cheapie British made, Norwegian filmed potboiler (originally titled Ransom) might suggest some grindhouse material, Wrede’s film made with a post-Bond, post-Zardoz Sean Connery and a young, dapper looking Ian McShane actually aspires to the slow-burn school of British cinema, telling the story of a Scandinavian security officer (Connery) who refuses to negotiate with a terrorist leader (McShane) that’s taken a plane full of passengers hostage out of fear that talking to the mercenaries will be a sign of weakness. Connery acquiesces and the film takes on a twist, albeit more simplistic sort of story along the lines of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There isn’t a heck of a lot of action except in some laughably shitty stock footage, but Connery and McShane make for a great adversarial duo, and there are some pretty clever twists towards the end of the film that might seem obvious, but are pretty well hidden from the audience.

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