The New Old: Of Love and Loss and Fun

Schindler's List

Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)Schindler’s List is almost an impossible film to review. It’s a masterpiece; that almost goes without saying, but it’s also more than that. It’s the definitive film made about the holocaust. Once that never trivializes the tragedy; instead depicting all of the horrors of the subject while still finding small measure of hope and humanity amidst one of the most disturbing chapters of history. Only Steven Spielberg could have made it. A man who is not merely a master of entertainment and spectacle, but the entire medium itself. He knew exactly how the material should be presented for maximum emotional impact, without losing sight of his unerring optimism. Some may complain that choosing to focus on a few hundred survivors amongst six million deaths, yet would it even be possible to make a film that presents the holocaust this unflinchingly without that small measure of hope within the despair?

For those who somehow never heard of the film or the story, it’s about Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) an opportunist who became a war profiteer. After the invasion of Poland he found a Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsly) to help create a factory producing war supplies. He relied on cheap Jewish labor to increase profits and for the first chuck of the film lived a life of hedonistic excess. Then he witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto and was forced into an uneasy partnership with sadistic concentration camp leader Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Within disgusting circumstances, Schindler grew a conscience and realized that his factory and riches could be used to save lives. In the end, 1200 Jews were saved under his supervision and he was forced to go into hiding as a war criminal.

It wasn’t exactly the glossy special effects fantasy he was known for at the time, but inarguably one of the most emotionally potent films ever created. Spielberg deliberately dialed back his usual visual pyrotechnics in favor of handheld cameras for immediacy and black and white film stock for its stark qualities and historical resonance. Beauty seems like the wrong word to describe the look that Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski created, but certainly the movie is as visually striking as anything the director ever created. Images like the windows of a ghetto block lighting up at night from machine guns are incredibly striking, while perfectly capturing the subject visually and burning into memory with haunting resonance. Almost every touchstone image and event of the holocaust finds its way into the film and Spielberg creates an unforgettable cinematic moment to translate it out of text books. Even the way Spielberg portrays death in the film is miles away from his action fantasies. The blood he normally avoids appears up front and no actor ever performs a “death scene.” One moment they are alive and the next their gone. It hurts to watch every time, no matter how many senseless executions are staged. The experience of watching the film can really be described as enjoyable, but it is perfect. There are a few very Spielberg touches that detract from the realism and may harm the ultimate impact of the film (such as the girl in the CGI-enhanced pink dress or the coda with actual survivors), yet the immense power and insight offered by the experience is enough to overwhelm any such nit-pickery.

One element of the film that becomes more intriguing on repeated viewings is the mirroring and exploration of Schindler and Goeth as characters. Beyond the anthropological aspects of the film, it’s a fascinating character study of what inhumane war can do to cynical men. In Schindler it brings about greed and corruption, in Goeth it fosters psychotic acts of…well, evil. Steven Zaillian’s script is thoughtful and deep enough to have a conscience arise in both men, it’s just that Schindler is human enough to act on it while Goeth is lost enough to dismiss it as weakness. The central characters never feel like coyly manipulative screenwriting devices. They are always people vividly created by remarkable actors. Ralph Fiennes may never be better than he is here, taking the trickiest character and somehow managing to create an identifiable person within an utterly irredeemable Nazi (even though he somehow lost the Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive). Neeson never shies away from the conflicts of his character, portraying a hero only towards the conclusion and even then doing so racked with guilt. Every other member of the cast is remarkable as well, it’s just that those two stand out because of what extraordinary characters they play. It’s a movie where everyone involved surely realized what they were doing would be important and stepped up accordingly.

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I’ll be the first to admit that I prefer Spielberg working as an entertainer than as an artist and he’s certainly been his own worst enemy on a few of his dramatic projects. Yet, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and the deeply underrated Empire of the Sun prove that he’s truly one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived regardless of the subject matter. No one could have made those movies better the medium is better for them existing. Sounds like gawdy hyperbole, sure. But as I wrote earlier, this is practically an impossible film to review. What else can you say?

As expected, Universal has gone out of their way to give the masterpiece the Blu-Ray it deserves. The depth and detail of every image is simply astounding without ever appearing digitally manipulated and the sound mix is crystal clear on every channel. The only letdown are the special features. Imported from the DVD is a 77 minute documentary of holocaust survivors and descendents describing their experiences in a way that draws out almost as many tears as the film itself. Promos for the Shoah Foundation and Iwitness are also included and that’s it. While I can understand why the studio and Spielberg elected to focus on remembrance and charity for their supplements and it is a noble gesture, it’s a shame that there is absolutely nothing included about the making of a film this important and extraordinary, but that’s a trivial complaint and really the only one that can be made about this impressive Bluray. Schindler’s List is an essential film and cultural document that is sure to outlive anything else Spielberg has created. It is the film about the holocaust that had to be made and it’s impossible to imagine anyone accomplishing something stronger. (Phil Brown)

 

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988) – In 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a full on pop culture phenomenon, and yet when the film dropped on Blu-Ray last week for it’s 25th anniversary, it was barely even hyped. I suppose you could argue that’s because the at-the-time groundbreaking technique of mixing live action with animation is now common in every single family feature released. But I think it’s more to do with the fact that the Robert Zemeckis comedy has gone on to become the cult movie it was always destined to be. Take a way the “humans and cartoons, together at last” gimmick and what you’ve got is a strange hybrid of classic Hollywood animation and film noir that was essentially created as a collection of in-jokes by and for movie geeks. It might be a ludicrously entertaining action comedy, but it’s also the type of weirdo personal project routed in a director’s filmmaking obsessions that tends to play better for movie drunk fanboys than the public.

Bob Hoskins stars as private eye Eddie Valiant who used to be successful at his job, but now is only successful at sucking back bottles of liquor. He’s hired by a studio boss to follow the wife of his big cartoon star Roger Rabbit. Valiant hates ‘toons since one killed his bother (and kicked his downfall); however, he needs the money and takes the gig. Jessica Rabbit ends up being a red head bombshell with the face of Veronica Lake, the body of Barbie, and the voice of Katherine Turner. After catching her cabaret act, Valiant wipes the drool away from his mouth long enough to snap photos of Jessica playing patty cake with Toontown mogul Marvin Acme (yes, that Acme), which sends Roger into a tailspin. Acme turns up dead and Roger is the main suspect, but Valiant knows he can’t have done it and agrees to help Roger clear his name while dodging the threats of Judge Doom (Christopher Llyod), his weasel henchmen, and his toon-killing goo known as “dip.” It all leads Valliant towards a massive LA mystery ripped straight out of Chinatown and Robert Towne’s never-made prequel.

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Zemeckis’ film is consistently clever without ever dipping into self-satisfied smartypants territory. Every scene is dripping with references to classic animation and film noir (particularly Chinatown, with a few iconic moments parodied wholesale). It’s also relentlessly entertaining in a way the director had mastered in the 80s. From 1980’s Used Cars to 1990’s Back To The Future III, Zemeckis just didn’t make a bad movie and they all followed the same tone. If you had to attach a genre to Who Framed Roger Rabbit or any of his 80s hits, it would be comedy, but all of them mixed and matched knowing genre tropes, action, jokes, and special effects into magical cocktails of pure entertainment. Roger Rabbit is a sheer joy to watch from the first frame to the last. Every scene is packed with more ideas than most entire blockbusters these days, yet the director never slows the relentless pace for a second to dwell on any of them. All of the references and gags are there for fanboys to find and yet if you’re a child who has somehow never even heard of the iconic cartoon characters on display before, it still plays like gangbusters.

Even though the animation/live action hybrid lacks novelty value know, the effect is still undeniably impressive. The fact that all of the cartoon characters and sets were clearly hand drawn only adds to the aesthetic pleasures, and the on set cartoon props and invisible man tricks required to complete the illusion hold up exquisitely. One of Zemeckis’ wisest moves was casting character actors rather than stars, and as a result the likes of Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd pull off their “acting against nothing” tasks so effortlessly that it’s easy to forget the animation wasn’t complete until a full year after the live action elements were shot. You also have to sit back in wonder at the simple fact that Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg were able to secure the rights to combine so many classic Disney, Warner Brothers, and other competing studio characters together and do whatever they wanted. It all came as a result of the film being made at an all time low for animation popularity and an all time high for Spielberg’s power. You simply couldn’t get this movie made today. The unabashed childish joy of watching Donald Duck and Daffy Duck duel it out on camera will never be repeated and for animation nerds that makes Roger Rabbit a bit of a miracle. Even if you could somehow talk all those studios into lending out their major properties again, it’s impossible to imagine the companys agreeing to place them in a script with so much sexual innuendo and oddball darkness. It’s a once in a lifetime kind of movie experience and that’s the stuff that cult classics are made of. In other words, don’t even make a sequel.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? debuts on Blu-ray with impressive results. Given all of the optical compositing required to pull of the live action/animation illusion, the transfer is inevitably a little softer than any contemporary HD transfer. That’s just par for the course, but it doesn’t prevent this Blu-ray from offering the finest quality Roger Rabbit presentation in any home video format. The image glows and pops off the screen, while the added definition allows you to see the brush strokes and hand-drawn strobbing of the animation. Some may call these imperfections in the digital animation age, but for me they always gave old school animation a charming handmade quality and adds to the film’s self-conscious style. All of the special features come ported over from the two disc special edition without a single new addition. That’s mildly disappointing, but at the same time the content is so detailed that it’s hard to complain. You’ll get a joyful commentary from Zemeckis, Frank Marshall, and collaborators filled with admiration for their accomplishment (and not in a grating way), a fascinating 36-minute making of documentary filled with onset footage, a few before-and-after animation showreels, an amusing deleted scene, and three original Roger Rabbit shorts made after the film’s success presented in pretty HD transfers.  Honestly, the last two disc DVD set was so perfect, it’s really hard to complain about the lack of new content since there’s really nothing else to be said. This is a spectacular Blu-ray for a classic film that deserves the adoring attention. If you enjoyed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a child, you might even love it more now. If you’ve somehow never seen it, I’m jealous of the giddy blast of entertainment you’re about to receive. Some childhood classics don’t hold up and this certainly isn’t one of them. I only hope that kids these days still get exposed to the movie, because Zemeckis’ entertainment masterpiece deserves to live on as long as all of the iconic characters, shorts, and features that it references. (Phil Brown)

 

Doctor Who The Ark in Space

Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (Rodney Bennett, 1975)– When talking about time traveling in the Tardis for fans across the globe only one thing comes to mind: easily the most popular science fiction series to ever air on television anywhere in the world, the adventures of Doctor Who.  Now available as a special edition DVD, we go all the way back to the Tom Baker years (The fourth incarnation of the good Doctor) for the 76th story in this long franchise as they land on The Ark in Space in hopes of saving the human race.

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The Tardis lands on a space station orbiting the earth in the distant future. It’s seemingly deserted, but the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry soon discover that they are not alone. Thousands of humans, the only survivors of the human race are in cryogenic sleep, have been sleeping as their ark has been invaded. A parasitic insect race called the Wirrn have taken control and threaten the very future of mankind.

Full disclosure, this is the very first episode or episodes of Doctor Who that I have ever watched, and I have to say even with the overwhelmingly cheesy 70’s production values, I still had a hell of a lot of fun with this one.  Structured like a mini-series or continuing serial, The Ark in Space was a fun little story arc that put them in a remote location and gave them a solid adventure to explore while the narrative managed to run through some of the social and political overtones of the day.  The direction by series and BBC veteran Rodney Bennett is solid and runs through the story arc at a healthy pace. The script by series stalwart Robert Holmes had the right blend of serious moments, along with some of its trademark sardonic wit and levity that the series has become most famous for.

In the long on running history of the show, Tom Baker had the privilege of playing the good Doctor over 184 episodes for a ten year time span, and while I admittedly don’t have any other Doctor’s to compare his performance to, he walks the character along a very careful tightrope of serious science fiction and campy fun quite well, and it’s no surprise that he was the longest serving Doctor.  Baker along with Elizabeth Sladen who plays Sarah Jane and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan always manage to keep to proceedings entertaining and moving along at a light and breezy clip, perfect for a show that was meant for an audience to just have fun with.

Remarkably these 2 disc Special Edition DVD’s are filled to the brim with special features along with a digitally remastered picture that looks fairly solid.  Special features include audio commentary with Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen along with producer Phillip Hincliffe through the 4 episodes that makes up The Ark in Space.  There’s also a Making of featurette, a cut down TV movie version of the The Ark in Space that was broadcast in 1975, Doctor Forever!-Love and War a short documentary on the Virgin/BBC Books novelization range produced during the 1990-2005 hiatus, 1978 news footage of Tom Baker’s public appearances, along with a great deal of archival material like original trailers, production design footage and much, much more.

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For any classic science fiction fans who are ignorant of any and all things Doctor Who, The Ark in Space and Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor is as good a place as any to start. (Dave Voigt)

 

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) – It’s not exactly breaking news to acknowledge that Criterion is the premiere company for home video releases, offering care and detail to their packages that no one else comes close to matching. However, when Criterion gets their hands on a true reverential cinematic classic, they really do pull out all the stops. That brings me to their new Blu-ray for On the Waterfront, one of the most impressive sets they’ve ever created. The film comes in no less than three aspect ratios replicating every way in which the movie has ever been presented and is overflowing with special features that nuzzle into every aspect of the film’s historic production, influence, and impact. It’s enough to make you wish that Criterion could be put in charge of all archival Blu-ray releases and if the “death of physical media” rumors are true, that’s actually starting to inch out of fantasy and into reality.

Where to start with On the Waterfront, one of the most influential Hollywood movies ever made? I guess the best jumping in point is director Elia Kazan, who revolutionized American theatre and film by pulling them into the modern age with Lee Strasberg’s brand of method acting. The film is the premiere example of Kazan’s early stabs at bringing naturalism to Hollywood, while also commenting on and vindicating his controversial involvement in the Hollywood blacklist. The tale of Marlon Brando’s deadbeat prize-fighter/reluctant longshoreman who triumphantly rats out the mob-run labor union is almost blatantly autobiographical and rightly praised/derided for that fact. For movie buffs, the makes On the Waterfront a fascinating slice of Hollywood history, but for most audiences it’s just a nice n’ gritty 50s crime drama.

There’s undeniably an uncommon dedication to realism for a film of its time. Scenes are shot on location in New York with naturalistic lighting, while actors like Brando and Karl Malden bring a searing immediacy to their performances that trumps the theatrical posing of the time. However, On The Waterfront is also such an influential work that it can’t help but feel dated and stylized when compared to the legion of imitators that followed. For all the glowing accolades and fond memories of Brando’s early work, it’s not exactly up to contemporary standards. Brando was an eccentric performer whose peculiar choices simply felt more real than the ratatat old school actors who surrounded him. Particularly when looking at the swooning romantic scenes between Brando and Eva Marie Saint or his iconic “coulda been a contender” scene with Rod Steiger these days, there’s no denying that a certain stylized Hollywood mannerism is still deeply embedded in the film.

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However, you can’t judge movies like this based on contemporary standards. On the Waterfront is a relic and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bud Schulberg’s script is still an impassioned work of social righteousness, Kazan’s vision of New York’s mob riddled docks remains harshly genuine (with location footage sealing it in a vivid time capsule), and Brando delivers one of those performances that is impossible to tear your eyes from. It’s a perfect storm of the right talent with the right idea in the right place at the right time. Films like this don’t tend to be labeled masterpieces willy-nilly and you can expect it to remain on lists of the greatest films ever made as long as those lists exist.

Thank god Criterion got their hands on the flick to preserve it for the HD generation. Previously only available in a square aspect ratio designed for television, Criterion for the first time offers up the On the Waterfront in widescreen as it was presented theatrically (in both 1.66:1 and 1.85:1) as well as the old academy ratio for purists. Regardless of which box you choose to watch the film in, the transfer is about as flawless as possible. Depth and clarity are stronger than any previous incarnation, while still staying true to the grainy, gritty, naturalistic photography that Kazan borrowed from Italian neorealism. The audio track remains in mono, but it’s crystal clear and any sort of forced surround mix would just feel unnatural. However, Where the Criterion set really explodes is in the remarkable collection of special features.

The company was able to port over Richard Schickel’s commentary track, interview with Kazan, and documentary on the “contender” scene from the previous release, which was a nice touch for collectors. Even better is the new material, which kicks off with a fascinating interview with Scorsese about the impact the film had on him (his enthusiasm is infectious) and then tosses in an uncommonly thoughtful vintage hour long documentary on Kazan (which features invaluable footage of him in the actors studio explaining his directing philosophy and even dives into his checkered communist history), a new interview with Eva Marie Saint (in which she reveals herself and Brando were almost run over by a truck in a key scene), a 45 minute documentary with film critics and historians detailing every aspect of the production, an interview with Thomas Hanley delving into his childhood memories from the set, a fascinating 30-minute interview with author James T. Fisher detailing the real events that inspired the film, a 20-minute audio essay on Leonard Berstein’s score, a brief featurette on the HD restoration, and a hefty booklet (packing multiple essays and even a transcription of Kazan’s House Of Un-American Activities testimony). Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine anything else that could be included and everything crammed onto the disc is a joy to dive into for movie buffs. There could be no better package for On the Waterfront and Criterion deserve all the praise in the world for pulling together such an incredible package. At the risk of sounding corny and losing my gig at Dork Shelf for this concluding sentence: “This Blu-ray is a contender and makes me feel like a bum, which is what I am.” (Phil Brown)

 

The Monster Squad

The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987) – If you’re a child of the 80s then chances are you fucking love Fred Dekker’s Monster Squad. If you came of age in any other era, you probably never heard of it and desperately need to discover it. The film combined two of the decade’s most beloved genres: latex horror and Spielbergian childhood fantasy. It can be summed up in a single elevator pitch: “The Goonies fight the classic Universal Monsters.” Somehow the flick 110% lives up to that concept. It’s a giddy blast of nostalgia for anyone who wore out a VHS copy during their misspent youth, while proving to be just as entertaining today for anyone who likes this brand of old school kidde movies. Dekker’s flick came from a magical time when children’s entertainment didn’t have to be whitewashed for mass consumption and studios realized that kids liked to be scared.

Dekker follows a group of talented, but sadly underused child actors who never got much work after this potential blockbuster bombed. The youngsters are members of a tree house club called The Monster Squad. Essentially that means they waste their afternoons scarfing down candy and talking about horror movies. Thank god they exist though, because through a screenwriting contrivance never fully explained Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon have all ended up in their sugary-sweet 80s suburb at the same time. No one will believe them, but Dracula (Duncan Regehr) has assembled a monster all star team to steal some sort of magic orb and take over the world. It doesn’t make much sense, but doesn’t have to. It’s all whipped up by Dekker simply to have preteen boys makes friends with Frankenstein (Tom Noonan) and kick the Wolf Man (Carl Thibaut) in the nards. Sounds fun, right? Well trust me, it’s even better than you’d imagine.

Fred Dekker just might be the most underrated horror auteur of the genre’s Hollywood renaissance in the 80s. The man only made three movies (the less said about his unfortunate 1993 swansong Robocop 3, the better). Made while he was fresh out of film school and still in his 20s, Dekker’s debut Night Of The Creeps and follow up Monster Squad were pitch perfect genre outings made with the unmitigated joy of a fanboy getting to lavish his love for the genre onscreen. Written with his roommate Shane Black (who would go on to write Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and just wrapped directing Iron Man 3), Monster Squad is a streamlined adventure comprised entirely of lightening-fast storytelling, sarcastic one-liners, knowing in-jokes, and spectacular set pieces. With Stan Winston in charge of the monster designs, every character is gorgeously recreated in the finest 80s rubber effects without ever treading on Universal Studio’s copyrighted designs. The kids all have the charming naturalism of The Goonies or Explorers, while Regehr mugs his way through his Dracula scenes with a giddy love of evil and Noonan commits to his role of Frankenstein in a heartbreaking performance that’s better than the goofball horror/comedy deserves.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I have a genuine, unabashed love for Monster Squad. It might be kiddie escapism over 20 years past its prime, but damnit it works. Sure the script is full of cheesy 80s storytelling devices and plot holes and the whole flick is about as substantial as a deep fried Mars Bar, yet none of that seems to matter during the 82 minute sugar rush of entertainment. Dekker was also able to go far darker than most family films these days, touching on the holocaust, finding pathos in Frankenstein, delving into family dysfunction, and spilling buckets of carefully doled out to the liberal PG-13 standards of the time. That he slips all that in amongst the cheesiest of 80s music montages and raunchiest one-liners of the era simply makes it all a delicious blast of empty cinematic calories that never goes old.

Olive Films have been kind enough to re-release the cult classic on Blu-Ray after Lion’s Gate’s stacked 20th anniversary edition went out of print. The transfer and audio mix are gorgeous, showing off the impressive scale of production that Dekker had to play with and the disc is best presentation the film has ever received. Unfortunately, none of the fantastic special features from the old set (including multiple audio commentaries and a feature length documentary) were carried over, so you’ll want to hang onto to your old DVDs and Blu-Ray since their value will only continue to skyrocket on eBay. However, if you’ve never owned or even seen the movie before, you’ll still want to rush out and pick up Olive’s new disc immediately. Monster Squad deserves every inch of its cult status and if it continues to be a big seller on spinning movie discs, maybe one day Fred Dekker will even get to make another movie. Lord knows contemporary horror movies could use a little of that guy’s wit and genre expertise. (Phil Brown)



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