Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 8, 2015
Under Pressure is a swarthy, bellowing beast of a movie, burrowing its testosterone underneath the East River. Directed by Raoul Walsh in 1935, it depicts a race between two teams of self-described “Sand Hogs” who are digging a tunnel to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is an insanely dangerous job, as they contend with fires, flooding, and the compressed air underground, which gives them the bends, or what they call “the itch”. The itch gives the teams a convenient excuse to act like gambling degenerates, so Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe revive their clashing brawn and brain routine from What Price Glory (’26), only this time shirtless and covered in river sludge. Directed with swagger by Raoul Walsh, the camera keeps pushing in, in, in – until there’s a sock to the noggin’ or a natural disaster. Previously unavailable on home video, 20th Century Fox has added it in HD to iTunes, part of their 100th Anniversary initiative to release more of their library to digital platforms (I previously reviewed their iTunes release of John Ford’s The Black Watch here).
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 17, 2015
In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog). Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 10, 2015
I take comfort in Jason Statham. For more than a decade now he has been taking his shirt off in modestly budgeted action movies, ones that usually open in the first quarter of the year. These are the months of low expectations for studios, in which they release films they don’t deem worthy of expensive marketing campaigns, usually made up of genre films of low birth. These are the months, and the films, where Statham has found his niche as a leading man (he has been in blockbusters in supporting parts, as in The Expendables franchise and the forthcoming Furious 7 and Spy). They are directed by journeymen with titles as blunt as their plots: Homefront, Redemption, Parker, Safe, and The Mechanic. They are all about lone men with particular sets of fibula cracking skills, though Statham has made simpler, lower-budgeted projects since his work with the operatic Luc Besson on The Transporter series (2002 – 2008) and the ADD-aggro Crank films (2006 – 2009). Since filming The Mechanic (2011) in New Orleans, Statham and his producing partner Steve Chasman have followed the tax credits, forming their movies around which city gave them the best deal to shoot. This economic incentive has made for atmospheric, enclosed action films that allows for such absurdities as shooting Philadelphia-for-New York City in Safe. Statham is asserting more control over his work, and his latest feature, Wild Card, is the first made for his own production company, SJ Pictures. Released day-and-date in late January on VOD and very limited theatrical, it seems to have already disappeared without a trace. But it’s a low key charmer, an episodic tour through the dregs of Las Vegas society (partly filmed in, yes, New Orleans) that’s less action movie than a downbeat character piece with brief flashes of violence to keep the fans happy.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 15, 2014
The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a Man. Brian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 10, 2014
Whenever I have a spare sixty-five minutes, I try and watch a movie by Edward L. Cahn. While he started out making well-regarded Westerns and crime films for Universal Pictures in the early 1930s, he was eventually demoted to short subjects for reasons unknown, and ended his career cranking out one-week quickies for producer Robert E. Kent, distributed through United Artists. He made eleven features in 1961, many of which were shot in his split-level home to save money. He passed away in 1963, reportedly from complications due to his diabetes. But over the course of his thirty-year career he directed 71 features and innumerable shorts, leaving behind a grimly deterministic body of work, evident even before he slid out of Universal’s favor. The bellboy murder witness in Afraid to Talk (1932, aka Merry-Go-Round) and the escaped convict in Laughter in Hell (1933) are doomed from the first shot – the rest of their movies are a low-lit explication of their inevitable fate. His movies are best described from a line in When the Clock Strikes (1961). They are “like a door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.”
Cahn has received a bit more attention these days thanks to Dave Kehr’s column in the November/December 2011 issue of Film Comment magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s fascinating article on When the Clock Strikes for the Film Noir of the Week blog. Those should be your starting points if you wish to study the Edward L. Cahn sciences. I am taking a more patchwork approach at Movie Morlocks, writing up his features whenever I have a spare moment to watch them (I previously wrote about Laughter in Hell, You Have to Run Fast, and a grab bag of noirs and Westerns). Many of the films Cahn made with Robert E. Kent are streaming in cropped versions on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Watching his movies in dodgy samizdat prints seems somehow appropriate to his checkered, cheap and vibrant career. Last week I sampled a feature Cahn romantic comedy, Redhead (1941, on Amazon Prime), and one of his bleaker noirs, When the Clock Strikes (1961, Hulu).
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 15, 2014
The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets. As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 5, 2013
In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix. But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on April 14, 2013
Last week the film series I program was graced by a visit from Eric Stough, the animation director for South Park. He was kind enough to let me select a recent episode for him to both screen and then provide us with a behind-the-scenes look at how it got made, along with a Q&A session. I picked the show they aired last October, A Nightmare on Face Time, because its riff on The Shining dovetailed nicely with the recent theatrical release of Room 237, and because it deals with a subject of interest to any movie lover: the demise of the video store.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 8, 2011
In one of the stranger experiments in cable television history, Showtime’s 1994 Rebel Highway series commissioned ten filmmakers to remake a 1950s exploitation movie. It was the brainchild of Lou Arkoff (the son of American International Pictures founder Samuel Z. Arkoff) and Debra Hill (producer of Halloween). They gave directors $ 1.3 million and a 12 day shooting schedule, to roughly approximate the original shooting conditions (modified for inflation). Unlike the ’50s cheapies, though, they were given final cut, and could choose their own screenwriter, editor and director of photography. This proved irresistible to the (mostly) impressive list of talents who signed on: Robert Rodriguez (Machete), John McNaughton (Wild Things), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Allan Arkush (Rock ‘N’ Roll High School), Joe Dante (Gremlins), Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) and Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex).
All of the filmmakers, except for Rodriguez, were old enough to have lived through the era of the film they remade, engaging the aesthetics and politics of the originals in strikingly different ways, alternating between affection and parody often in the same film. Since its original airing, the series has completely disappeared from cultural memory, but Netflix Watch Instantly, that haphazard repository of moving image detritus, is now streaming every entry, and it’s well worth sampling the project’s eccentric film-historical time travel. Below, some thoughts on my favorites.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 14, 2011
After a ten-year absence from the screen, John Carpenter’s welcome return is with a haunted insane asylum quickie entitled The Ward (released on cable VOD June 8th, it will receive a limited theatrical run starting July 8th. Playdates are here.) Following the box-office failure of his underrated Western-in-space yarn Ghosts of Mars (2001), Carpenter felt “burned out” and took a step back from Hollywood. He was unofficially retired, aside from happily cashing the checks from studio remakes of his work (Assault on Precinct 13, the forthcoming They Live). But after directing two episodes in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, with tight budgets, compressed schedules and little oversight, “it was actually fun again” (interview with Fangoria). He looked for a similar setup for a possible feature, and found it when actress Amber Heard invited him to direct her in The Ward, an indie horror film funded by Echo Lake for a modest$10 million (the estimate at IMDB). He did not write the script or the score, and The Ward misses his sense of group dynamics that he studiously gleaned from Howard Hawks. Instead it’s a solid job of craftsmanship, punching up Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s hacky story mechanics with an effortlessly controlled visual scheme that creates a circular, suffocating sense of claustrophobia.
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