The New Old: The Good, the Badlands, & the Ugly

Porkys

Porky’s (Bob Clark, 1982) – Sometimes with certain movies you tend to have a preconceived notion of what a film is going to be all about, but it actually ends up being so much more.  New on Blu-Ray, Porky’s is obviously a raunchy coming of age sex comedy but there are actually so many more interesting layers to this rather well evolved story of friendship and those years in high school where a young man’s focus tends to be on one thing only.

Porky’s asks us to join the comic misadventures of six teens in the 1950’s that are desperate to satisfy their uncontrollable sexual urges.  When they strike out on their own they decide to pool their resources and get some action of at Porky’s, the honky-tonk strip joint in the next county that has a ‘bad’ reputation.  However when the owner of Porky’s rips them off and humiliates them, they plot a revenge scheme that is ready to go all the way.

From Writer/Director Bob Clark, Porky’s is easily one of the more subtly subversive films ever put to the screen and that’s probably why it is still relevant today.  His tale of horny teenage boys is quite frankly one that all men in any walk of life can relate to, but rather then lean on any tired stereotypes there’s a well written story with emotional depth andthought out characters.  The boys and other men in town have to deal with themes of racism – which in early 1950’s Florida was a real issue at the time – and together they ultimately overcome it all with humor and respect towards one another.  It’s a surprisingly refreshing turn of events considering how bluntly they address the issues earlier in the film, however Clark keeps an even keel and realistic tone to all the issues of the day while avoiding any over the top cinematic histrionics.  On top of all that, never before in one of these films have the female characters been so strong and sexual empowered.  Albeit a little unrealistic for the times, the women of Porky’s have near equal footing with the men and Clark acknowledges (in an admittedly roundabout way) that both and men and women have urges at that age and that there isn’t a damn thing wrong with that.

The largely unknown cast at the time meshes together incredibly well, as the camaraderie and friendship between these young men allows the audience to flash back to many of their own high school relationships.  In an interesting precursor to her iconic role as Samantha on Sex in the City, Kim Cattrall plays the strong willed and healthy Miss Honeywell who made generations of filmgoers think of “Lassie” in an entirely different light.  Chuck Mitchell is great as Porky walking the line between sinister and silly rather well. There’s a few other familiar faces in the form of Alex Karras and Art Hindle, and while nobody stands out, they all get their chance to shine. It’s a great comedic ensemble.

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Looking back, now over 30 years later Porky’s still works not because of the raunchy nudity or sex which is tame by today’s standards but from the common sense of friendship and belonging that runs throughout the film and unites all of our high school experiences in one way or another from generation to generation.

The picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are decent but unspectacular and the special features on this Blu-Ray include a feature length audio commentary track with Writer/Director Bob Clark, Porky’s Through The Peephole: Bob Clark looks back, Porky’s: A Comedy Classic featurette, TV spots and the theatrical trailer. (Dave Voigt)

 Badlands

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)  – Over the past few years Criterion has been slowly adding Terence Malick’s first three masterpieces to the company’s Blu-ray collection. While some people were probably most excited to get their hands on either Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line, I have to confess to being most excited for Malick’s debut Badlands to hit HD. Now, after far too much suspense, Criterion has finally delivered the goods. For me, Malick has never made a better movie than Badlands, which is one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time right up there with Citizen Kane and Beavis and Butthead Do America. While his subsequent movies became more polished, philosophical, and critically acclaimed, something about Badlands just resonates a little deeper. Superficially, it is the closest Malick has ever come to telling a straightforward story, but even more than that Badlands is the only movie with characters that are fully developed and not simply pawns for the director’s themes and compositions. All of the Malick’s iconic stylistic tics and traits are there, yet Badlands is his one movie that could play just as well to the art film phobic as the legendary eccentric’s ever-growing cult of admirers.

Based loosely on one of America’s proto-serial killers Charles Starkweather, Badlands is a lovers-on-the-run movie like no other. Martin Sheen stars as the Starkweather substitute Kit, a James Dean obsessed country boy with peculiar ideas, a hefty ego, and an unpredictable mean streak. Sissy Spacek co-stars as Holly, a sweetly sheltered n’ dumb Texas teen who Kit meets one day and instantly falls for. They have a secret, childish love affair cut short by Holly’s surly unnamed father (Warren Oates). Since Kit isn’t one to let other people get in his way, he shows up to take Holly away with a gun and shoots Oates once there’s trouble. Shell shocked by the sudden violence, Kit and Holly burn down the house and leave a confession for the police in a daze, before moving off to the woods to live a bizarre fantasy life in a tree house. Of course, Kit’s not-so-subtle handgun fishing techniques eventually draw the attention of local bounty hunters, which leads to a sudden burst of defensive murder before the duo hit the road on the run from the law. Killing becomes a coldly common fact of their daily lives as they hide in the empty farm plains of the south while racing towards an inevitably tragic conclusion. Yet somehow despite it all, the characters remain peculiarly innocent.

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Kit and Holly should be frightening and disreputable characters given their actions, yet Malick never allows that to happen. He clearly loves these lost children and never presents them as heroes or villains. Through his now iconic use of voiceover, Malick has Holly narrate the journey through impossibly innocent diary entries that put equal value on mass murder and musings about trees. Combine that with the director’s typical beautiful cinematography that turns empty fields into painterly vistas and a gentle score comprised of music performed by children and you’ve got the sweetest pair of serial killers ever captured on film. Malick uses his stylistic tricks to tell the story subjectively through Holly’s point of view. She considers this to be her fairy tale love story and can’t let go of that fantasy until the very end.

The film’s various murders are all presented coldly and straight to unsettle the audience, yet Kit and Holly seem mysteriously clueless to the nature of what they’re doing. For Kit that’s because he’s an undereducated sociopath acting out his cowboy dreams unencumbered by morality. For Holly, it’s because admitting the reality would destroy her childish adventure. Sheen and Spacek play their roles perfectly, disappearing into their characters in a level beyond anything else they’ve done since. Perhaps it’s because they were so inexperienced that they weren’t able to over think their performances or maybe Malick is just a genius at casting, but you can’t help but forget that you’re watching a pair of movie stars while you fall in love with these Kit and Holly. It’s also worth mentioning that a major part of the film’s charm comes in its unexpected sense of humor. The characters are so clueless that you can’t help but laugh at their naïve and lost worldview, which combined with the director’s exquisite sense of style and the actors incredible performances only makes cinema’s kindest killers all the more endearing.

As expected, Criterion’s Blu-Ray is as remarkable as the film. The new transfer is an absolutely revelation for anyone who feel in love with Badlands on pan-and-scan VHS or Warner Brothers’ cheap n’ barebones DVD. Malick might not have had the technical resources of his subsequent productions, but his eye for ethereal cinematography was there from the beginning. Colors are strong, digital distortion is non-existent, close-ups reveal remarkable details, and Malick’s many shots of empty horizons have limitless depth/clarity. It’s hard to imagine Badlands even looked this good in its 1973 theatrical release and for a film defined so much by pictorial beauty, that makes a world of difference. The special features are excellent as well. The camera-shy Malick obviously isn’t involved, but Criterion still whipped up an extras package worthy of a masterpiece.  There’s a 40-minute documentary comprised of new interviews with Sheen, Spacek, and production designer Jack Fisk that delves into insightful details about Terry and the production that have never been heard before. Next up are interviews with longtime Malick editor Billy Webber and producer Ed Pressman that delve further into Malick’s process and Badlands scattershot independent production. Finally, and amusingly, Criterion included an episode of American Justice about Charles Starkweather that’s almost hilariously sensationalistic and proves how different Badlands is from the actual events as well as the film’s theatrical trailer that tries to filter Malick’s unique vision through the language of 70s exploitation movie marketing. If you love the film, this is the Badlands Blu-ray you dreamed of, but thought would never happen. If you’ve never seen the movie, go ahead and buy the disc anyways. It’s about to become one of your favorites. (Phil Brown)

Ministry of Fear

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944) – It’s commonly assumed that Fritz Lang made all of his masterpieces in Germany before winding out his career in Hollywood where he cranked out film noirs that stifled his genius. I can’t deny that the psychological complexity of M or the sheer scale of Metropolis are never matched in the American B-movie phase of Lang’s career, yet the work he did for the studios is too good to ignore. Lang may never have managed to conquer Hollywood like some of his European ex-pat contemporaries like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, or even Ernst Lubitsch, but he made some rather brilliant crime movies and film noirs that deserve to be more than footnotes to his storied career. This week Criterion shines its prestigious spotlight at Lang’s long overlooked Graham Greene collaboration Ministry of Fear. While it’s not Lang’s finest Hollywood achievement (that would be The Big Heat for those keeping score at home), the movie is a delightful shadowy slice of WW2 paranoia that plays like a slightly less successful companion piece to that other Graham Greene war-malaise noir masterpiece The Third Man.

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Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) stars as Stephen Neale, a man who opens the film by being released from an asylum. It’s not clear why he was there, but he seems charming and British enough to be a hero. Neale plans to take a train back to London, but stops by at a country fair first. He participates in a cake-weighing competition (don’t ask) and loses, only for the fair ground folk to creepily recommend he visit the fortuneteller instead. The magic ball-owning lady gives Neale the precise weight of the cake, only to have a blond Aryan type show up minutes later for the same fortuneteller/cake combo, which leads everyone else in the fair to demand back the mysterious cake. Neale brushes them off and hops on the train. A blind man joins him and accepts a piece of cake, only to curiously crumble it in his hands before bashing Neale in the head and stealing the cake. Neale follows the not-so-blind man to an abandoned cottage where Nazi bombs prevent them from fighting or the truth from being revealed. So Neale heads to London where he tries to report the crime to doubting policemen who question his credibility due to that recent stay in the mad house. Neale then hires private detectives to figure out what’s what, falls in love with a femme fatale-ish lady (Marjorie Reynolds), and tumbles deep into a wartime Nazi spy thriller filled with lies, murder, conspiracy, séances, shadows, and bombs.

Like The Third Man, Reed’s story nimbly mixes and matches film noir tropes and character types with WW2 paranoia. It’s a dark, weirdo semi-genre that Lang was born to play in given that his unique style of cinematography helped birth the film noir aesthetic and his own background in Nazi Germany gave personal resonance to the healthy Hollywood wartime fear.  Unlike The Third Man, Reed did not adapt the screenplay himself and as a result it isn’t nearly as tightly written. However, Lang more than makes up for any scattershot pacing or narrative confusion with dollops of style. There’s not a character that appears onscreen who doesn’t initially appear suspicious and since none of the Nazi spies sport armbands or ridiculous German accents, it’s impossible to predict how deep the conspiracy goes. You could read the movie as Lang’s sly commentary on how easily evil can hide and deceive. Or you could simply view it as a rousing piece of entertainment with bursts of darkness and visual invention only Lang could provide. The truth is somewhere in the middle and while that somewhat compromised vision led to both Greene and Lang dismissing the effort as empty propagandistic thrills at the time, the film holds up surprisingly well now. The style and tone are intoxicating and there’s just enough subtext for it to play as more than mere entertainment. The script by producer Seton I. Miller definitely downgrade’s Neale’s psychological complexity in favor of cheap thrills and tacks on one of the most laughable false happy endings I’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t lesson Ministry Of Fear’s impact as much as it sounds. It’s a project made by an artist sneaking his obsessions into a commercial product and when viewed on that level the flick is an intriguing success.

As expected, Criterion lavished this B-grade Fritz Lang flick with an A-grade Blu-ray. The transfer is absolutely beautiful, with the director’s distinct high-contrast shadow-filled black and white cinematography shining in HD. Depth and detail unimaginable on Ministry Of Fear’s old DVDs pop off the screen and given that this is a fairly straightforward thriller elevated by tone and style, that makes a world of difference (the audio is also crisp n’ clear, but it’s mono so don’t expect to much). There isn’t much on the special features front, just an amusingly dated sensationalistic trailer, an interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney about the history and subtext of the film, as well as an essay by critic Glenn Kenny that offers more of the same. However, with a movie this old and obscure, you can’t really expect more than that and if any company other than Criterion released the flick, we wouldn’t even get those extras. It’s a stretch to call Ministry Of Fear a lost Fritz Lang masterpiece, but it is a deeply underrated entry in his career that deserves more respect and analysis. Thankfully, Criterion is pretty good at packaging discs for that sort of thing and their treatment of Ministry Of Fear is so strong that hopefully it won’t be their last Blu-ray release of Lang’s Hollywood efforts. He made a handful of thrillers just as good, if not better than this in La-la-land and it’s about time that more than just film scholars actually watched them. (Phil Brown)

 

Deadly Crossing

Deadly Crossing (2010, Keoni Waxman) – When I received a copy of the Steven Seagal action thriller Deadly Crossing in the mail, I didn’t think it would end up being placed in the weekly archival DVD column. I had just assumed it was another cheap, direct to video project that I hadn’t heard of or paid attention to making its release in the quietest way possible. I figured it would be another drab, lifeless actioner that Seagal simply sleepwalks his way through en route to a paycheque.

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Then it turns out I was all wrong. Deadly Crossing is actually the first two episodes of his short lived TV series – produced and written in part by Seagal himself – incompetently re-edited and re-packaged as a stand-alone feature film. Apparently these episodes of a TV show that I didn’t even know existed in the first place are more or less all going to be coming to DVD in the same way, but sometimes out of the order they aired in and with potentially little rhyme or reason. It makes far more sense if you remind yourself that it’s actually the beginnings of a long arc series, but that doesn’t make this any less of a shit show.

Seagal stars as Elijah Kane, the leader of an elite team of undercover cops in Seattle dealing with various different crimes, like the opening massacre of a Japanese store owning family, a car-jacking ring, and heroin trafficking that briefly makes the show seem like a lower rent version of Justified. None of it ever gels into an actual film and there’s no fooling anyone that this was a TV show. From the obviously rock bottom budget and low number of action sequences beyond the occasional fist fight to the way it tastefully shows fully clothed strippers and the way characters spout the most ludicrously old-times cusses and slurs, it’s impossible to see why the producers of the show wouldn’t just release the series in one go, as is. It would have been so much better.

Seagal, for what it’s worth, seems more energized here than he has in almost a decade. There’s actually several glimpses of the action star he used to be, and he’s not entirely devoid of charisma or swagger. He credibly seems like an old-school, tough as nails boss for these cats. His supporting cast also gets their own lively arcs, and they’re all nothing to sneeze at, but the re-editing of two episodes of the show into one feature kills any feeling that we will ever see these guys again. If it was a film, it wouldn’t be one worthy of a sequel in any way. It would be completely forgettable, at times laughable (with one of the most jarring, off putting opening credits sequences of all time that very inappropriately uses the same font as the closing credits to Friends), and only register as a mild diversion even in its biggest moments of badassery. In short, it’s a money grabbing cheat that’s almost more insidious than one of the films Seagal showed up in where he didn’t remotely give a crap.

It might also sound strange, but the most annoying and tooth-grating problem with this “shovie” is how the film “takes place” in Seattle, but everyone and their mother talks with a Creole accent and characters very obviously talk openly about the BP oil spill almost by name and there are a bunch of swamp boats everywhere. Setting the film in NOLA would have made infinitely more sense, and maybe the show itself took place there and they just changed it for the movie. But the only thing they do to cover it are numerous fast-cutting insert and establishing shots of the Space Needle from about five different angles. It proves that it’s not Seagal that isn’t trying here. It’s the people turning these episodes into films that didn’t think things through. Then again, as the producer, that could still be Seagal’s fault. (Andrew Parker)

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