Saturday, January 15, 2011

Shock Corridor/The Naked Kiss

A crazed bald woman beats up her drunk pimp before taking $800 from him, and this is all before the film’s title card appears. We’ve entered serious film noir territory here, courtesy of maverick writer/director Sam Fuller. In this pair of his classic ‘60s films making their Criterion Blu-ray debut, we get a fresh look at the work of this trailblazing auteur in crystal-clear hi def.

In Shock Corridor, Fuller follows a brave newspaper reporter on his bold gambit to infiltrate a mental hospital as a patient in order to investigate a suspicious murder. One guess how that turns out for him. Although he’s perfectly sane when he enters the facility, his prolonged exposure to the deranged patients proves more than his psyche can manage. There’s precious little plot to develop here, as it’s obvious right from the opening that our hero has bitten off more than he can chew, leaving the only mystery whether or not he will successfully uncover the identity of the killer. Instead of plot, Fuller delights in wallowing in the madness of the facility, with extended scenes devoted to the escalating factors driving the reporter to insanity, including a gaggle of nymphomaniacs, a race-hating bigot inciting a riot, shock therapy, and finally the reporter’s own breakdown as he imagines the entire interior of the ward being immersed in a torrential downpour. That final scene is the most memorable, and it came at a cost. As disclosed in the bonus features, Fuller flooded the soundstage and completely ruined his set to get the otherworldly footage.

Filmed the following year, The Naked Kiss has a much more intriguing storyline and protagonist, and as such I found it to be far superior to its predecessor. Constance Towers stars as an ex-hooker named Kelly with a heart of gold, who lands in a sleepy conservative small town (is there any other kind?) in her quest to redeem herself. However, her first act in town is a final remnant of her past life, as she quickly beds the local sheriff in exchange for a donation to the Kelly fund. That sheriff subsequently keeps close tabs on her and doubts her virtue as she sets about working as a helper to disabled children and finds romance with the wealthiest man in town. Is it all an act, or is Kelly truly on the straight-and-narrow? The lingering impact and subsequent repercussions of one naked kiss bring about her perceived downfall, but also her best shot at validation if the lawman can discover the truth.

Both films are stuffed with colorful characters concocted by Fuller, not too difficult to achieve in Shock Corridor’s setting but all the more impressive in the mostly straight-laced environs of The Naked Kiss. Kelly is the most interesting character of them all, as we’re almost as conflicted about her virtue as she is, careening from that astounding opening scene with her pimp right through to her trial in the court of public opinion. Towers is stunning in the role, although more so in the latter stages as there’s something almost too theatrical rather than natural about her performance in the early scenes in town. That could be somewhat attributed to the times, as Fuller’s work here is clearly part of the early building blocks of independent film, so his lead actors were likely still finding their footing outside of the highly regimented studio system fare of the time.

This was my first exposure to any of Fuller’s work, but it’s quite easy to draw a direct line from him to the auteurs of our time such as Tarantino, Jarmusch, and Wenders. As if to drive home that idea of Fuller as godfather to all latter-day independent titans, all three of those directors in addition to Scorsese and Tim Robbins appear in a lengthy biographical program about him included in the Shock Corridor bonus features. There’s quite a bit of interview footage of Fuller included, giving viewers great insight into his gruff, outspoken, and animated personality. Tarantino also contributes a recurring comical impersonation of him while sifting through Fuller’s archives with Robbins.

Elsewhere in the bonus features, Constance Towers appears in lengthy interviews exclusive to each disc and offers incredibly fascinating insight into the production of both films. Although filmed in 2007, she’s razor-sharp, poised, and astoundingly informative in her disclosures about Fuller, the making of the films, and their lasting impact. The Naked Kiss also includes interviews with Fuller from French shows recorded in 1967 and 1987, as well as excerpts from a 1983 episode of the UK South Bank Show dedicated to him, giving viewers an abundance of exposure to this iconoclastic writer/director.

Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are available on Criterion Blu-ray on January 18th, 2011 and are being reissued on DVD on the same date. In fact, they’re such long-time and key components of the Criterion library that it’s no surprise to find their original release order numbers on the case spines, representing release 18 and 19 in their now 500+ deep collection. The bonus features are almost entirely new to these reissues, as is the addition of much-improved new artwork by comic book artist Daniel Clowes. For more information, visit

Originally published on FilmRadar.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

During our great space race of the ‘60s, the sci fi genre took on added credibility and attention as fiction moved closer to reality. That’s not to say that the genre suddenly grounded itself in hard facts, but some efforts were made to feed the public appetite for outer space with actual scientific research. One of those projects has just been released in a lush new Criterion Blu-ray edition packaged with a supplemental feature espousing its basis in fact. Don’t worry though, that pesky science barely gets in the way of the film’s undeniable campiness. It may have correctly guessed a few space age outcomes, but it’s still a wild and free-wheeling outing on the mysterious red planet.

There’s no question about the plot of the movie, as its title is completely descriptive. This is the Robinson Crusoe story retold in space, following the same arc as Daniel Defoe’s original novel or any other subsequent deserted island films such as Swiss Family Robinson, The Blue Lagoon, or Cast Away, with our hero stranded far from home with no hope of rescue as he deals with survival issues and the crushing effects of isolation. There’s even a man Friday along for the ride, an alien slave rescued from his Mars captors by our intrepid astronaut. And there’s a monkey, because everything is better with a monkey. Well, that’s actually part of the science at work again, since the monkey is a fellow astronaut, expanding on their early use by NASA.

The film opens with our Crusoe, the monkey, and a third astronaut (yes, that is “Batman” Adam West) moving into orbit around Mars. When they’re forced to take evasive actions to avoid a huge mass hurtling through space, they separate into two landing modules and crash on the planet’s surface, with only Crusoe and the monkey surviving the landing. Crusoe explores the red planet as he learns to adapt to its lack of oxygen and eventually discovers shelter, food, and water. His chance encounter with Friday grants him the human companionship he misses the most, and the two bond over their efforts to survive and learn each other’s language while outwitting the alien captors continually scouting the planet for their lost property. It’s a pretty basic premise, but it gets a bit wonky in its execution.

Although they shot some exteriors in Death Valley to get a suitably desolate alien landscape, the film’s special effects have not aged well. I found myself frequently comparing its effects to the original Star Trek TV series of the same era, and finding Star Trek to be superior. That comparison may be partially attributed to the fact that Crusoe’s director also later co-produced the original Star Trek pilot, helping to set the tone for both projects. Director Byron Haskin was an effects pioneer, and scared generations of film lovers with his direction of The War of the Worlds, but appeared to be nearing the end of his trail based on the work here. There were a couple of so-so attempts at composite shots with the live action footage appended to matte paintings of Mars backgrounds, and even combined with real volcano footage at one point, but the precision of Blu-ray makes the seams painfully obvious. The alien slaveowner spaceships are particularly laughable, with a high quotient of heavily recycled footage and simple popping in and out of frame like bubbles rather than any attempt at movement. Crusoe starts recording a journal on tape, but keeps shutting off his oxygen tank before each recording line…even though he doesn’t ever appear to be turning it back on afterwards. Even Friday’s silly caveman wig detracts from the serious intentions of the film. The cheese factor of the film rockets sky high thanks to its effects. In our post-space race era, that’s really all the film has to offer new viewers, although its fervent early fans will undoubtedly enjoy reminiscing with its wide-eyed vision of the future.

The film has been completely restored by Criterion, with loving attention paid to its vast 2.35:1 Techniscope color presentation. The version presented here was struck from the original negative and digitally cleaned to remove flaws. The uncompressed monaural audio track was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic master and also digitally cleaned. As par for the course with Criterion, the finished product is seemingly better than its original theatrical release. It’s all topped off with a groovy Bill Sienkiewicz cover illustration that beautifully nails the film’s theme and setting.

In addition to the previously mentioned science-heavy featurette, the disc includes audio commentary from the film’s screenwriter, stars, and others, an enlightening stills gallery including many unused concepts for the film, along with its original theatrical trailer and an amusing music video for a theme song actor Victor Lundin (Friday) wrote and recorded many years later in response to fan requests.

Originally posted at FilmRadar.

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Despicable Me

Surely one of the biggest surprise commercial and critical hits of 2010, Despicable Me arrives on Blu-ray in a robust three-disc combo pack stuffed with bonus features. The film’s early trailers were uniformly cringe-worthy, much like Yogi Bear or the upcoming Smurfs, making its eventual emergence as a solid and highly entertaining family film all the more noteworthy.

Gru (Steve Carell) is an aging evil genius faced with the unpleasant prospect of being upstaged by a younger diabolical mastermind named Vector. He’s the ultimate Grinch, a total misanthrope isolated in his evil lair plotting ways to ruin the lives of normal people. He doesn’t appear to have any redeeming qualities until he adopts three adorable little orphan girls longing for a home of their own. What starts as an elaborate plan to use the girls in his battle with Vector grows into real affection as they start to bond.

The film is a joy to behold on Blu-ray, with fine details like the texture and weave of clothes and the worn metal of Gru’s vehicles especially precise. Its DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is more than adequate, although the film’s focus on family development leaves little room for audio fireworks.

The story moves briskly if somewhat predictably, paying off with some touching moments in the final reel. The vocal talent is nothing special, with Carell in particular struggling to find and maintain Gru’s oddly accented voice. Aside from that, I found very little else not to like aside from a fairly lame final scene and some cheap 3D pandering during the closing credits. It’s a surprisingly fun, heartwarming tale sure to charm the entire family.

The film takes on entirely new dimensions thanks to the Blu-ray’s many bonus features. Among the best are three new mini-movies starring the crowd-favorite Minions, Gru’s squat yellow army of helpers. There are also featurettes on the score (courtesy of Pharrell Williams), the creation of the film’s world, and the vocal talent, as well as commentary with the directors and Minions. There are three carnival-type games for the kids, although they’re plagued with delays for some reason. Two more exclusive games are available for iPhone and iPad as part of the disc’s pocket BLU app that allows users to transfer select bonus features to their smartphones. The other two discs are a DVD copy and digital copy of the film.

Despicable Me is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Despicable Me on Blogcritics.

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