Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Star Trek: The Art of Juan Ortiz (2013)

Star Trek: The Art of Juan Ortiz (2013)
Oversized hardcover (14.3” x 10.5”)
Titan Books, 112 pages
ISBN 9781781166703
Retail $39.99

Juan Ortiz was first and foremost a fan, which comes across in each of his retro-style posters based on the 80 episodes from the original Star Trek television show (1966-69). Many of these works are absolutely stunning, some of them humorous, all of them interesting. If you grew up in the late 60s/early 70s, you’ll recognize the styles represented here, some borrowed from German Expressionism, comic book, pulp and magazine covers, and other examples of period pop art. 

Making things even more authentic, Ortiz has given many prints a worn, discolored look around the edges. Many of them even have built-in creases in their images. All in all, the retro-style is a perfect fit for Ortiz’s art. 

The Starship Enterprise features prominently in most of the prints, usually to great effect. I find it interesting that some of the most stunning posters are based on some of the show’s weakest episodes. In the Index and Commentary, Ortiz gives brief thoughts on each of the prints and how they were created.  

Poke around on Ortiz’s website and you’ll find even more of his work. He’s also working on posters for the animated series (1973-74) and much more. 

Even if you’ve seen every episode many times, these artworks will give the stories a fresh, unique flavor. This book instantly jumps to the top of the gift list for any Star Trek fan. But buy it soon before it goes out of print. 


Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Twilight Zone: "King Nine Will Not Return"

A word or two of explanation: I love The Twilight Zone. I have seen every episode of its original run (1959-1964) at least once and own them all on Blu-ray. Sometime last year I started watching the show from the beginning, with the intent of blogging on each of the 156 episodes. I watched all 36 episodes of Season One and blogged on most of them, but have been on something of a hiatus while trying to finish my MLIS. Now that that’s over, it’s time to re-enter the Zone. 

Other than my own thoughts, ideas and opinions, I have three print resources that are invaluable for all things Zone related:

The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree

And now, let’s jump into Season Two:

Season Two, Episode 1

“King Nine Will Not Return”

Original air date: September 30, 1960
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Buzz Kulik
Production Costs: $61,812.53

Truth is stranger - and usually more interesting - than fiction. That’s certainly the case with the opener for the second season of The Twilight Zone, a Rod Serling-penned story called “King Nine Will Not Return.”  

In 1959 (about a year before Serling wrote the story), a group of British geologists exploring the Libyan desert discovered the wreckage of an American B-24 bomber called the Lady Be Good, which had disappeared during WWII sixteen years earlier. The geologists discovered the plane’s guns and ammo intact, its water jugs full - but found absolutely no sign of the nine-man crew. 

This was just too good for Serling to pass up. He adapted the story and acquired the talented actor Bob Cummings to play Captain James Embry, a man who awakens in the desert amidst the wreckage of the King Nine, but with no traces of his crew. 

For anyone who’s been watching The Twilight Zone from the beginning, the biggest problem with “King Nine” is its similarity to the series pilot “Where is Everybody?” One of Serling’s most-used themes in the show is the “man in isolation” theme. This wasn’t the first time Zone fans would see it and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. 

But despite the “We’ve seen this before” problem, “King Nine” does have some good points and is certainly worth watching. First, Cummings gives a convincing performance that still holds up well 50 years later. (Serling pushed for an Emmy nomination for Cummings, but didn’t get it.) Second, the downed plane in the middle of the desert makes for a stark, impressive shot, all the more so considering that this was well before the days of CGI and the crew had to transport and reassemble an actual aircraft in the desert area of Lone Pine, California. (Somehow Serling talked the Air Force into letting him use one of their B-25 war surplus planes for $2,500 rather than the original asking price of $345,000.) 

Although it had nothing to do with the show itself, “King Nine” marks the first time Serling appears onscreen at the beginning and end of each episode (although he did in the Season One finale, “A World of His Own.”) 


Friday, September 06, 2013

Mud (2012) Jeff Nichols

Mud (2012) Jeff Nichols [2:10]

There’s not much I can say about Mud that hasn’t already been explored so wonderfully by Cinema Enthusiast, but I will say a word or two, starting with this: if you haven’t seen any of the three films by Jeff Nichols, you should, and as soon as possible. 

Nichols’ first film, Shotgun Stories (2007) came out of nowhere to appear on many “Best of the Year” lists (including those of Roger Ebert and David Edelstein). It’s the story of a family feud between two half-brothers following the death of their father. Set in rural Arkansas (Nichols’ home state) with a title like Shotgun Stories, you might think the film would be a “rednecks-gone-wild” flick with non-stop guns blazing and buckshot flying. Not so. The film is a highly contemplative, well-thought out drama with wonderful performances, most of them by friends of Nichols. (One actor, Michael Shannon, recently General Zod in Man of Steel, appears in all three Nichols films.) One reviewer on IMDb mentioned that you watch the film waiting for something big to happen, then realize it did, but without gunshots and explosions. Oh, and Shotgun Stories had a budget of only $250,000 (dirt cheap).

Take Shelter (2011) shows a young husband/father (again, played by Michael Shannon) haunted by visions that a storm is coming that could destroy his family and entire way of life. Only no one else sees the things he sees. He desperately tries to build an underground storm shelter, in spite of his unbelieving friends and family. Take Shelter is a good drama/thriller that helped spread the word that Nichols is a director to be watched. (The budget for Take Shelter: $5 million; still pretty cheap.)

Now with Mud, Nichols proves himself to be a serious contender. He also shows how he can stretch a dollar. Mud cost $10 million to make - twice the budget of Take Shelter, but still a very inexpensive film by today’s standards. With that, he was able to get some great performances out of some pretty big names: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker and an actor I hope will continue to grow and mature for many, many years, Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life

I thought about summarizing the plot of Mud for you, but again, Cinema Enthusiast has already done that exceptionally well. It’s not a perfect movie: the last half hour leaves a little (not a lot) to be desired as far as plot developments and believability, but in some ways, Nichols wrote himself into a corner that he had to get out of. He did so, and maybe that was the best scenario that he could come up with (I certainly couldn’t top it), but if you can overlook that, the film works very well. Again, Cinema Enthusiast touches on a couple of other legitimate points, but those didn’t totally diminish my enjoyment of the film. 

Mud should be seen if for no other reason, to show audiences that you can make a thoughtful, meaningful film about teenage life, struggles, coming-of-age, love, and anguish. Even when he doesn’t quite succeed, Nichols is certainly not afraid of showing us both sides of the pain and joy of growing up in a world that’s broken. 


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

French Cinema from its Beginnings to the Present (2002) Rémi Fournier Lanzoni

After realizing that I've really enjoyed the last several French films I've seen, I decided I wanted to read more about French cinema. I was looking for a book that would serve as a good introduction to the historical and intellectual origins, trends and philosophies of French film. 

About the first half of the book is quite good, laying a solid foundation by discussing the birth of French cinema and its influences on life and culture. Lanzoni also examines non-cinematic historical and cultural trends, making logical connections between life and film. Yet as the book progresses, it gets bogged down in far too much political history. That would be fine if that history translated directly into the consequences and repercussions of French film, but often that is not the case. 

Lanzoni also tends to pick a handful of films to illustrate historical trends, which is understandable, since the chosen films are generally the most famous and most available. But the reader should be aware that all of the films discussed contain complete synopses with spoilers. 

The treatment of French World War II cinema, post-war cinema and the New Wave is good, the last of which could've been expanded into a separate book. (But I'm sure there are many books on the French New Wave already out there, so we can excuse not going into a lot of detail here.) In fact, the pre- and post-WWII chapters are the most fascinating in that Lanzoni shows us how the actual hardships of the war led directly to important trends in filmmaking.   

Unfortunately, later chapters dwell on political events that do have significance to French film, but the level of detail is far too much for readers who, after all, want to read about the cinema. The films represented here seem to be simply the most popular without giving us enough reasons as to why they were popular, why the culture was ready for them, and why they were well-received. 

I was looking for a good introduction to French film. This one isn't bad, and I'll keep it as a reference, but my search will definitely continue. 


Bad Blu-ray Covers Catch Up to Hitchcock

A couple of years ago, Cinema Enthusiast wrote a great post about bad Blu-ray cover art. I'm sorry to say that this epidemic seems to have caught up with one of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, and his films. 

Universal seems committed to releasing some really bad covers for many of the individual Hitchcock films in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Series. The first of these really isn't that bad, but I still don't like it because the image (which looks like one of those old colorized stills) from the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much actually shows too much and is misleading. From this image it looks like James Stewart has just killed the poor guy on the ground, maybe because the guy knew too much? No, that's not the case. The image has also been taken out of it's context and setting and isn't even a direct image from the film. (But when has that ever stopped the marketing folks?)   

The old cover at least gives you a sense of the desperation in the faces of Stewart and Doris Day. You don't know what's going on, but you're pretty sure she isn't ordering a pizza. Of course, you've got Hitchcock's jowls to contend with, but I still prefer this to the other cover. 

Then there's Rope, a Hitchcock film that's something of a hard-sell anyway. Oh, here's a picture of Stewart with a strand of rope dangling from the letter E. How exciting....

At least with the old cover, you get a sense of conflict. There's clearly a struggle going on, even if we're not sure what it's about, which is way more exciting than the Blu-ray cover (unless you're a big fan of the letter E and things hanging from it...). 

And then there's the Blu-ray cover of Strangers on a Train. The image itself isn't bad but these aren't the strangers on the train! This cover leads you to believe that this man and woman meet on a speeding train, have some torrid affair, and perhaps some type of dangerous adventure. The film is exciting, dangerous and filled with unbearable tension, but the cover is completely misleading. It's dangerously close to false advertising. 

It might be old-school, but the old cover is not only more artistic, but more representative of the film as a whole. Sure, you've got the couple in the upper right hand corner, but they're not the focus of attention. 

It just baffles me that we have the most incredible format ever for home video releases with Blu-ray and some of the worst covers to match. Wow....   

Sunday, September 01, 2013

August 2013 Movies

Searching for Sugar Man (NF 2012) Malik Bendjelloul  [1:26]

Searching for Sugar Man was one of those films everyone told me I should see, but no one told me about, which turned out to be the right thing to do. I will do the same, although by this time, you’ve probably already heard the story and don’t need me to reiterate it. Regardless, Searching for Sugar Man is one of those rare tales that manages to serve as an uplifting experience that’s not over-sentimentalized. I hope you’ll give it a try.  


No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) Akira Kurosawa [1:50]

The first movie out of the box (and I’m referring to the Post War Kurosawa box from Criterion’s Eclipse series #7) is a winner. It was also a departure for Kurosawa, in that the hero of this tale is a woman (Setsuko Hara), the first and only time Kurosawa ever told a story with a female protagonist. 

Yukie is a young woman enjoying a simple, uncomplicated life of ease until WWII breaks out, turning her into a social activist. With a little romance and politics thrown in, you might think you could predict how things will go, but I think you’ll be surprised. How refreshing to see post WWII from the eyes of a Japanese director. I’m very eager to check out the rest of the films in this set. 


Phantasm (1979) Don Coscarelli [1:28] (2x)

When I was a senior in high school, we got HBO for the first time (which could account for why my grades tanked for awhile). One of the movies that aired on HBO that year was Phantasm, a strange combination of horror and sf that, to be honest, left my 18-year-old mind baffled. I remember being intrigued by it, but so disappointed with the ending that I quickly forgot everything about it except for the now famous silver sphere of death. 

Let 30+ years go by and sometimes things change. And sometimes they don’t. Phantasm is still something of a mess in many ways, but it’s an intriguing mess with some great ideas. I’m intrigued enough to watch Phantasm II.  


Ministry of Fear (1944) Fritz Lang [1:27]


The Devil’s Backbone (2001) Guillermo del Toro [1:50]


Night Tide (1961) Curtis Harrington [1:25]

It’s hard to believe Dennis Hopper was ever this young, but he was. This wasn’t even Hopper’s first film; you’d have to go all the way back to Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 for that. Most people have forgotten that Hopper was also in Giant. And would you believe that Hopper played Napoleon Bonaparte in The Story of Mankind? (It’s true.)

In Night Tide, Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a young sailor on leave who happens to wander into a carnival town, where he meets a woman (Linda Lawson) who stars as a mermaid in one of the shows. Johnny suspects nothing until he meets Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir) who runs the carnival sideshows and tells Johnny some strange tales. Are they true? Low budget to be sure, but Night Tide has a few good atmospheric moments and Muir is pretty good. 


The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) Robert Aldrich [2:22] (2x)

A part of me remains reluctant to revisit the more blissful movie experiences from my youth. The years separating the memory from the fact usually bring with them disappointment and regret. So it was with great trepidation that I watched The Flight of the Phoenix (the 1965 version, not the 2004 remake, which I never plan to see) for the first time since I was a kid.

I am happy to report that the film still works as a great disaster/adventure movie with better-than-average performances. You could say that disaster movies have progressed by leaps and bounds since 1965 and you’d be right, but Aldrich understands that you don’t need explosions every few minutes to create tension. He gets it instead out of situations and good acting. (I’d love to see a good Blu-ray restoration of this one someday soon.) 


Sleep Tight (2011) Jaume Balagueró  [1:42]

Sleep Tight goes to show you that you need more than just a good premise to sustain a suspenseful movie. You need at least some level of believability and that’s where Sleep Tight fails. Luis Tosar plays César, a miserable apartment concierge whose goal in life is to make everyone around him miserable also. The film contains some creepy moments (especially one conversation between César and a tenant who owns cute little dogs), but I never believed César was smart enough or talented enough to successfully pull off everything he did in the film. Plus some of the narrow escapes are just too much to ask an audience to believe. Yet I would watch more from director Balagueró. 


Les Miserablés (2012) Tom Hooper  [2:37]


Garden State (2004) Zach Braff [1:42]

Thanks to my friend Drew for loaning me this movie, another in a long line of movies from the past 10 years that I missed. Garden State meanders a bit at times, but I enjoyed it, especially thanks to one of those all-too-rare scenes that stick with you on a personal level


Dollhouse Season One (TV 2009)

The premise of Joss Whedon’s two-season show Dollhouse is easily grasped in the first episode and seems like it’s going to be a standard (but above-average) adventure show, but after a few episodes, the scope of the show becomes more rich and complex. The Dollhouse is an underground facility (actually a whole network of them, but this is the only one we see, at least in the first season) that provides Actives, people whose memories and skills can be supplanted by other memories and skills, anything a “client” needs for that Active to do for brief periods of time.  

For the most part, we follow the life of an Active named Echo (Eliza Dushku) and for the first few episodes, we get an “assignment-of-the-week,” which is fine, but this is Joss Whedon, so we know we’re being set up for something bigger. And we are. Things heat up quickly as FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) suspects the existence of the Dollhouse and seeks to uncover what’s going on there. 

Watching Dollhouse can be a frustrating and a fascinating experience. From watching just a few of the special features on the Blu-ray and talking to my friend Orangerful Sam, I know that Whedon and the Fox network have had a strained relationship at best. Evidence of that shows up here in episodes that seem disjointed, playing a sort of tug-of-war with each other, some vying for stand-alone adventures, some attempting to achieve a story arc of depth and worldbuilding on a grander scale. For all it’s faults, I am fascinated with the concept and am definitely on board for Season Two.  


Elysium (2013) Neill Blomkamp [1:49]

The year is 2154. The wealthy people of Earth have vacated the planet in favor of a space station called Elysium, while the everyone else has to settle for the poverty and over-population of what looks like a Third-World planet. Although the concept is certainly not new, Blomkamp does little to make it worth our time, giving us a pretty heavy-handed lesson in the way we handle (or mis-handle) health care. The majority of the characters are too stereotyped and cardboard-ish, but the actions scenes are actually pretty good.