The New Old: Guns, Drugs, and Tobacco

Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) – It’s kind of a sad footnote to the long, storied, and somewhat uneven career of the late Tony Scott that his final project ended up being the 3-D conversion of his most iconic directorial effort. While the film really served as the epicentre of the major VHS boom of the 1980s alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark as the film everyone seemed to own, it was a success that became so lofty that Scott was almost always trying to replicate it, sometimes to his own detriment.

Throwing down the gauntlet for the longstanding reign of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to being as the kings of meathead action cinema and signifying the death knell for lower budget imitators, this story of a brash young Naval fight pilot with the call sign Maverick (Tom Cruise) making waves in one of the American military’s most elite training programs was a massive success almost unparalleled in its time. Back then it was also pretty over the top and silly, but it was thrilling and engaging. It had a good looking star, a killer soundtrack, the requisite amount of Cold War jingoism to make audiences cheer back then and somewhat summarily dismiss today as a product of its time, and most importantly it had a director who knew how to pull it all together despite being fired from the project not once, but twice.

Scott’s fast cutting, MTV-styled approach to action was a landmark turning point in world cinema, not just in North America. It had almost full, year-long runs in theatres everywhere, making Cruise a superstar overnight and giving the actor what’s still his best star vehicle to date. It proved that there was an audience for people to actually buy movies at a reasonable price on VHS instead of renting them over and over again from video retailers, and in many respects paved the way for DVDs to be sold at sell through prices. Like most iconic films, both great and otherwise, it’s been analyzed endlessly on both technical and thematic grounds both positively and negatively. It was a style that Scott would go back to time and again with varying degrees of return on audience investment, but on its own Top Gun’s flashy excess of theatrics hold up surprisingly well 25 years later.

The film arrives after a brief IMAX 3-D run (which was gorgeous and sounded phenomenal) on with an intriguingly well done transfer. I say intriguingly because by and large the grain from the film’s original 35mm theatrical exhibition hasn’t been drained here. It makes the film’s early neon-orange tinted shots of aircraft carriers look a bit wonky, but when the action finally starts it’s startling how well the technology works for the material. The 3-D pays homage to and points out just what a technical achievement the film was back in the day. The sound mix also comes designed to be played as loud as humanly possible.

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There aren’t any new special features on this disc that weren’t already on the 2008 edition of the film, and that might sadly be because of Scott’s tragic suicide last year. But for those who don’t have that disc, it’s time to pick this one up. Aside from a stellar commentary track from Scott, Bruckheimer, co-writer Jack Epps Jr., and a pair of naval consultants, there’s also a whopping two and a half hours of behind the scenes documentaries about the making of Top Gun that are so great they might as well just be retitled “Tony Scott’s Film School.” There’s also storyboards, a look at the real life equivalent of the academy in the film, four music videos, and a bunch of archival EPK stuff. It was one of the gold standards back then for giving viewers a comprehensive package back then, and for 3-D buffs it still holds even more added value. (Andrew Parker)

 

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999) – Despite coming from a lengthy pedigree of journalistic dramas packaged as thrillers, Michael Mann delivered one of his best and most subdued films with this look at the space where corporatized media and commercial malfeasance meet. It’s more of an actor’s showcase and Mann doesn’t get to be as stylish as he normally can be, but it’s a different kind of film. Stylistically, it feels oddly outside of Mann’s comfort zone, but thematically it fits well within his wheelhouse.

Breaking his non-disclosure agreement, former big tobacco chemist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) blows the whistle on his former employers Brown & Williamson for putting nasty chemicals labelled “delivery enhancers” into their cigarettes. Losing his family, his job, and constantly under legal and emotional distress from being bullied constantly, he squeals to CBS’ 60 Minutes, but a different fight arises when producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) has to fight to even get the story to air.

As a drama, it probably played a lot better at the time it was made than it does now, but then again the same could be said for All the President’s Men. The importance of a big tobacco cover-up against the backdrop of a potentially groundbreaking media merger doesn’t feel as forthcoming today. Dramatized for cinematic convenience, Mann his co-writer Eric Roth are taking some factual liberties here, but the story still moves and flows quite well. The impact feels dampened despite still undeniably great work from Pacino, Crowe, and Christopher Plummer (as veteran reporter Mike Wallace), but that only leads to the viewer having a greater appreciation for Mann as a technician.

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Aside from an almost bullet point and pretentiously operatic conclusion, Mann adapts his gritty, kinetic, fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking here quite well as his handheld vision of a world constantly in motion lends the air of unease necessary to make such a picture work. There’s an immediacy to actions that would have been dry and clinical in lesser hands, and quite strangely it’s not a huge jump from this to the digital camerawork that would come about later in Mann’s career with Collateral and Miami Vice, which are really misunderstood character pieces of a different kind. That’s an argument for another day, though. All you need to know right now is that The Insider is still pretty damned great.

The Blu-Ray boasts a slick transfer and an adequate sound mix, but the lone special features (a commentary track with Pacino and Crowe that goes silent for long patches and was obviously recorded separately from one another and a brief production featuretter) are ported from the first DVD release of the film. (Andrew Parker)

 

The Drunk and on Drugs Happy Funtime Hour (Ron Murphy, 2010) – Spending the better part of a decade playing the same characters day in and day out would take its toll on any actor, but the gleeful aplomb that Trailer Park Boys actors Robb Wells, Mike Smith, and Jean Paul Tremblay use to distance themselves from their previous creation with this batshit crazy TV miniseries makes the audience feel the same amount of catharsis that the people at the centre of this foul mouthed hurricane must have felt making it.

Wells, Smith, and Tremblay play themselves in a scenario where they have been hired by a network (headed up by a purposefully hammy Amy Sedaris) to produce a $15 million sketch show. Not only does the show not make a lick of sense and is hated by the same test audiences that should adore it, the trio have also unwittingly created a fictional town that they can’t escape from. Unleashing a drug epidemic by way of some blue, powdery, hallucinogenic concoction that can be slipped into anything or take on its own, they have made all of their actors (mostly played by the leads in various different scenarios) become stuck in their method acting roles. Modern day pirates, gay DJs in fat suits, century old mobsters, biker drug dealers, WWII soldiers (including a cameoing Jay Baruchel who also pops up as an ambulance driver), and the late Maury Chaykin as himself playing a mad scientist all come together to make the boys’ lives a living nightmare.

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Edited together for the DVD as one long movie (with more cursing this time) instead of a miniseries, the episodic beats still remain to throw off the tone slightly, but the aims are more than admirable. The show wasn’t deisgned to make a lick of sense, but even sober viewers can appreciate the thought and care that goes into making something this trippy. Taking a cue from Monty Python, the sketches are all extremely well integrated into the plotline and fabric of the show. Some of the gags are bound to offend people at some point, but the story feels so unpredictable that it’s easy to stick with it. It probably couldn’t have gone much further than this short run, but it’s pretty tightly packed for what it is.

The DVD includes in character interviews with some of the participants that adds an added dimension of weirdness when it turns out they guys were trying to make a kids show in the first place. It feels like a deleted scene that makes things all the more disturbing, but it definitely adds some depth to an already interesting piece of work. (Andrew Parker)

Check out our interview with Robb Wells, Mike Smith, and Jean Paul Tremblay here!

 

Schizo (Pete Walker, 1976) – As the Blu-Ray cycle marches on the classic releases are starting to need quotation marks. The cannon of Hollywood classics demanding and deserving of the high def treatment is dwindling folks, so now we’re starting to see cheese, trash, and fluff fill screens in 1080p. It might not be as universally exciting or appealing, but for those of us out there who like our crap as much as our art, it’s an amusing time. Case in point would be the release of Schizo. Never heard of it? Well, that’s probably fair. It’s a film by Pete Walker, a man who made forgotten sleazy British exploitation movies in the 70s (probably best known for his whips and chains boarding school flick House Of Whipcord that needs to be seen to be believed). Schizo falls into a peculiar swell of British Psycho knock offs that spilled onto screens throughout the 60s and 70s. The gold standard for this brand of trashy English thriller is Twisted Nerve. Schizo falls more in the middle-to-garbage range, but it is a damn entertaining slice of horror camp for those who enjoy that type of thing.

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The movie opens with a somber definition of schizophrenia, which is a pretty insensitive and misleading set up for a film that genuinely couldn’t give crap about accurately depicting the mental illness. From there we’re introduced to your garden variety creepy old man played by Jack Watson. When he’s not looking nuts for the camera, he’s paroled and finds an article in a news paper about a famous ice skater being wed that makes him snap and head out to London to stop the festivities. That skater in question is played by the very lovely and often very naked Lynne Frederick who is about to wed John Layton’s wealthy factory worker. At the wedding reception, Watson slips a bloodied machete next to the cake which makes Frederick freak out. Soon she’s panicking about someone (or something) from her past coming back to haunt her and all sorts of folk surrounding her start dying in graphic n’ gory ways. Looks like that pervy/crazy Mr. Watson is up to no good, right? Or maybe something else foul is afoot. Regardless, it’s a bad situation. More bloody murders to follow.

So, if you haven’t worked it out already, there’s a big fat plot twist in Schizo that you’ll see coming at least 20 minutes before it happens (hint: what’s the movie called again?). However, that doesn’t exactly mess up the flick too much. This isn’t really a movie you watch for carefully constructed screenwriting or moving acting. Nope, it’s all about big silly visceral thrills and Pete Walker packs in plenty of them. The English director was routinely torn apart by critics during his 70s heyday, but his work holds up well these days. It’s all exploitation schlock, but at least exploitation schlock that tries to tell a story and incorporate some creative filmmaking techniques. Walker was clearly a fan of the giallo thrillers coming out of Italy by the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava at the time, so his Schizo murders are gory, baroque, and elaborate. Black gloves and POV is employed liberally as knitting needles are plunged through eyeballs and other pointy objects do damage to the squishy human form as gushing streams of crayola-red fake 70s blood splashes across the screen. If you’re a fan of giallos and vintage British horror, Schizo is a hell of a lot of fun. Every way in which the film feels dated or misconceived adds a layer of camp appeal now, offering a healthy mix of laughs and shocks that is almost as entertaining as if the humor was deliberate. It’s a B-movie time capsule and a good one.

Schizo arrives of Blu-Ray through Kino Lorber’s Redemption series and it looks quite nice. The movie was shot on cheap, grainy 70s film stock and clearly hasn’t been carefully archived, so don’t expect this to be an eye-popping revelation. However, it’s also hard to imagine the film was even presented in such pristine quality theatrically and all the blemishes only add to the film’s inherent 70s nostalgia of the presentation.  The lone special feature comes in the form of an honest 13-minute interview with Pete Walker in which he describes the film and production with an amusing mix of fondness, nostalgia, and regret. If nothing else, the director seems nice and knowing enough to deserve a little retrospective appreciation and the disc also features a collection of trailers for a handful of his features in case you decide to delve deeper into his obscure career. Schizo is far from a masterpiece and frankly unless you’re partial to this type of movie already, you’ll probably think little of it. However, it’s kind of nice to know that the Blu-Ray format has become popular enough for oddball titles like this to get the HD treatment. It’s much easier to fall in love with a new trash classic in a nice quality version than an impenetrable VHS-rip. Let’s just hope that Kino is committed to reviving more forgotten gems and that this isn’t a situation where Pete Walker isn’t just friends with one of the heads of the company or something like that. (Phil Brown)

 

The Best of WCW Monday Nitro, Volume 2 – Wrestling fans from back in the day already know the saga of WCW from the mid-90s to the early 21st century. Much has been made about how outrageous salaries, nonsensical booking, and the over reliance on a single gimmick destroyed one of the longest running and most successful wrestling franchises in history. Smart marks (wrestling fans who know the sport is fake and analyze sports entertainment from athletic and creative perspectives with the fervor of fantasy footballers) often like to snicker and snark at how some of the worst moments in pro wrestling history occurred there, but they neglect to remember that there were always decent matches and patches even in the darkest of times.

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Once again hosted by DDP – Diamond Dallas Page – the second instalment of the Best of WCW Monday Nitro cuts through all of the crap that somewhat unfairly rose to the top to look back on some of the most iconic matches and moments from the show that beat WWE’s Raw is War for several consecutive years in the ratings on the strength of the ever popular NWO, great technical wrestlers like Dean Malenko and Chris Jericho, the rise of Goldberg into becoming a superstar, and a cruiserweight division made up of smaller wrestlers from around the world that couldn’t be seen anywhere else.

In a lot of ways, this package does a better job of acting as a history lesson about the promotion, including far more interesting on screen moments that weren’t even matches or weren’t thought of as important at the time. Medusa (a.k.a. Alundra Blaze) throwing away the WWE’s women’s title in the garbage on air. Goldberg’s first ever victory and silent demeanour that followed. Sting joining the NWO Wolfpack. With the added insightful remarks from Page (who’s really the best possible host of this set thanks to his closeness to the promotion throughout the decade when it was most popular) the reference points almost outshadow the matches, which while fine, are still just bouts that were put on TV and not on a pay-per-view event.

It’s also definitely a set worth picking up on Blu-Ray, because as with most WWE produced sets these days there’s a wealth of bonus matches and moments not available on the DVD set. (Andrew Parker)

 

Being Human – The Complete Second Season (2012) – The Canadian produced, American set remake of the popular BBC series of a female ghost, a sexy male vampire, and a nerdy werewolf all living together under one roof to help each other through their respective quarter life crises continues on the same trajectory as its first season without all that many surprises for people familiar with the original series. Sam Witwer, Meaghan Rath, and Sam Huntington are all great choices for the three leads, lending a real air of humanity to the monsters and demons they all struggle with both within and without, but the series creators hew way too closely to the beats of the original series that the suspense level just doesn’t reach the same heights. Making things slightly more awkward is that this version has considerably more episodes to work with, drawing things out and sometimes overthinking major plot points. It’s fine for people who have no desire to sit through the original series or who wish to see a different take on this one, but outside of fan service the BBC version still stands head and shoulders above this take on the material. (Andrew Parker)



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