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VOD Review: A Band Called Death

Article first published as Music DVD Review: A Band Called Death on Blogcritics.

We live in the middle of a golden age of documentaries. For the past few years, music documentaries have featured prominently in my top ten lists. Paul Williams: Still Alive and Searching for Sugar Man were among my favorite movies last year, and this year Beware of Mr. Baker will probably sit beside sit title on my year-end list.

What this cross-section of music docs has in common is at least the perception that the subject documented has fallen out of the public eye. The story behind Death goes further than that. The all-black power trio from Detroit played a fierce and fast rock and roll that, like fellow Detroit bands like the MC5 and The Stooges, anticipated punk. Until a few years ago, hardly anyone had heard them.

Death only released one 45 in their lifetime, and as the story goes, were almost signed by Clive Davis. The Arista records impresario was ready to snap up their debut album, recorded at Detroit’s legendary United Sound Recording Studio, on one condition: they change their name. David Hackney, one of three brothers who made up the band, had developed a fairly positive symbolism around the band’s name, and refused to change, leaving the demo tape to smolder in obscurity for decades.

The band may have been ahead of their time but they were not influential. By the time the 45s got into the hands of hipsters, their music was quaint and their name an asset. The movie’s strength is that it doesn’t depend on the music for its dramatic weight. This is a movie about family: three brothers trying to make it as musicians in a Detroit whose black music scene was generally more favorable to R&B acts (the P-Funk Diaspora aside), a mother who supported her sons’ creative ventures even if the din drove her crazy, and supportive siblings with great personality and affection for each other.

A third-act sidebar brings in the outside world. When Death’s sole 45, “Politicians in my eyes,” got into the hands of record collector/former Dead Kennedy’s front man Jello Biafra, word began to spread, and reached critical mass around the time of a New York Times article in 2009, the same year their   1974 album ...For The Whole World To See was finally released on Drag City.

The band’s discovery could have made for an annoying aside – the always self-righteous Henry Rollins is the most prominent of the hipster talking heads assembled. These celebrity appearances are thankfully kept to a minimum, and the next generation of the family rises to the occasion to make this music come to life again. Even if you don’t think Death is the second coming of rock and roll, as a movie, A Band Called Death rocks hard.

A Band Called Death will be available for digital download and VOD on Friday, May 24. Pre-order on iTunes here.

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DVD Review: Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes

still-of-frank-ashmore-and-drew-rausch-in-bigfoot--the-lost-coast-tapes

(XLrator Media)

A helpful pre-credit scrawl indentifies the Lost Coast area of Northern California as a hotbed of reported Sasquatch activity. You would think a quasi-documentary about the culture of Bigfoot hunters and doubters would be a watchable B movie. But why is it that Bigfoot movies are so bad? Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes is the second feature-length straight-to-video found footage release in less than a year to tackle what should be ripe material. It has a leg up on Bigfoot County (read my BC review here) in visual quality. While Bigfoot County was filmed on what looks like commercial grade digital video, Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes, also shot on digital video, has better production values in a field where that is a low bar. Unfortunately, the recent Bigfoot found footage quasi-docs have one more thing in common: obnoxious lead characters.

Sean and Darryl (Drew Rausch and Rich McDonald) are young Los Angeles residents with a plan to document evidence of the existence of Bigfoot. The movie opens as Darryl is walking out of a bank with a fresh $75,000 loan to make his Bigfoot dreams come true.

This opening already poses questions most Bigfoot movies don’t ask. They may not be questions the filmmakers had in mind. Sean and Darryl are clearly the privileged class, who qualify for a substantial loan for a frivolous end: a proposed reality TV show, as if we needed another one.  Is there a class divide in Bigfoot culture? The movie does try to have fun with the horror movie tropes of the Stupid White Kids. Sean tries to recruit African-American colleagues to work on his video shoot, but they refuse: “Look at us: we’re light skinned, we aren’t white, we don’t go camping, we don’t roast marshmallows, and we sure aren’t going to chase Bigfoot through the forest!”

The frat boy reality TV wannabes seek out a mountain man who claims to own a Bigfoot corpse. Another similarity is the use of an older character actor to play the young investigators’ forest guide. Frank Ashmore, whose credits go back to the Airplane movies and 1970s TV, plays this role in Carl Drybeck. Ashmore has more of a presence than the young charges he leads through the woods, but his character is even less developed than that of his counterpart in Bigfoot County. If the script had given him decent Bigfoot stories to tell by the campfire, Ashmore might have told them with aplomb. But he is not the kind of gifted actor who can get a convincing dramatic reading out of the phone book, and the script, by Brian Kelsey, Bryan O’Cain in their only screenwriting credit, is barely more interesting than that.

In a modern world that clamors for meaning, there is apparently enough clamor to produce Bigfoot movies on a regular basis. If only the quality control for Sasquatchian cinema was as hardy as the myth.

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DVD Review: When Horror came to Shochiku (The Criterion Collection)

The X From Outer Space

The X From Outer Space

Article first published as DVD Review: When Horror Came to Shochiku – The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

The 1954 Godzilla (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]  ushered in a new age of monster movies, and not just for Japan. But its success, both commercially and artistically, was in part tempered by history, coming less than a decade after Hiroshima. The specter of nuclear annihilation gives Gojira its air of stark hopelessness, in an efficiently horrific package that is enshrined in cinema history. Godzilla’s children are perhaps less lucky, as a recent entry in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series indicates. Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku (The X from Outer Space; Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell; The Living Skeleton; Genocide) (Criterion Collection) looks at a quartet of films produced by a studio that moved from melodrama to monsters, with decidedly mixed results.

The X From Outer Space begins promisingly enough with a swinging soundtrack, and charming shots of astronauts bouncing in zero gravity. But the monster, affectionately known as giant poultry, screams in an unfocussed rage. I realize it sounds silly to criticize a Japanese monster for not having enough motivation, but motivation, suggested and implied, was part of what made Godzilla so frightening. X simply hatches and screams, avoiding the thanksgiving dinner table.

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell, fares better, but like X it feels longer than its short 84 minute running time, despite the strange vision of what has been called the vaginal wounds that the monster inflicted upon its victims.

The Living Skeleton

The Living Skeleton

The best of the set veers from radiated super-creatures to a tale of straightforward supernatural revenge. The Living Skeleton follows the horrific slaughter of passengers and crew on The Dragon King, a freighter ship that comes back to haunt the murderous pirates that sent it to the bowels of the sea. It’s the only black and white film in the set, and the monochrome cinematography gives it a more elegant look, but however elegant the photography, there’s no way of shooting the flying bat motif that wouldn’t look delightfully cheesy.

The B-movie stock company that populates these films gives one the sense that there are characters doomed to wander different visions of the apocalypse. A victim of Goke becomes a doctor in Genocide, which also brings back a blonde astronaut from the same film to become a mad scientist in a bikini. This film takes the most direct look at Hiroshima, pitting the insect world in battle with humanity as a revenge for the specter of nuclear annihilation. As a picture of a post-nuclear society, When Horror Came to Shochiku is perhaps more interesting as a whole than in its parts. The individual titles have moments of B-movie bliss and/or historical interest, but only The Living Skeleton really satisfies as a movie.

As with other Criterion Eclipse sets, the DVDs do not include extra features or commentary, but the transfers are uniformly excellent.

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DVD Review: Bigfoot County

Oct-NFMLA-BigfootCounty-001Article first published as DVD Review: Bigfoot County on Blogcritics.

Since the Paterson-Gimlin footage of an apparently B-cupped Bigfoot in 1967, the cryptozoological creature has starred in a shelf-full of B-movies, some of them entertaining, very few of them worth a second look. My very first article for Blogcritics covered a quartet of Sasquatchian features, which offered a smattering of the kind of hairy charms that redeem bad movies, most prominent being “You’re just a sensuous tiger,” the incongruously funky number in the middle of The Capture Of Bigfoot. The song’s keening guitar riff and pulsating beat conveyed the speed and power of everybody’s favorite humanoid monster as well as the swaying heat of a late 1970s cabin party. The beast also inspired a briefly-lived Saturday morning television show in Bigfoot and Wildboy, a lesser product in the C.V. of Sid and Marty Kroft which nevertheless had an appealing minimalist aesthetic.

This brings us to Lionsgate Entertainment’s Bigfoot County, which opens with the iconic Paterson-Gimlin footage and devolves steadily from there. Lionsgate is a name associated with big-budget entertainment like The Hunger Games and the Twilight franchise, and while those may not be the pinnacle of cinematic art, they’re at the very least adequate. The same cannot be said of Bigfoot County .

The directorial debut of actor Stephon Stewart, whose resume as an actor includes bit parts on soap operas and a few independent shorts, follows in the contemporary tradition of the found footage horror film. As the story goes, a documentary filmmaker (Stewart) takes his crew to California’s Siskiyou County, home to the largest number of Bigfoot sightings in the world. Vapid dialogue and annoying characters whose death you quickly long for aside, this is a promising concept. As an aficionado of Bigfootiana, I was happy to catch a glimpse of the minor tourist trade that has grown around these supposed sightings.

There is one decent performance among the talking heads interviewed for this pseudo documentary: character actor Sam Ayers as the bible-thumping Travis deserves better B-movies than this.  Most of the movie is amateurish even beyond the conventions of found footage horror.  The cast and crew’s wanderings through the California woods contain nods to the Blair Witch Project and Deliverance but fail to make us interested in the hunt, much less in the hunters. When the creature finally appears with its glowing red-eyes, it recalls a superior boring Bigfoot movie, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall his Past Lives. I wasn’t caught up in that Bigfoot movies slow reverie either, but I’d rather see it again than spend another second in Bigfoot County.

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DVD Review: Born to Be Bad (Warner Archive)

Article first published as DVD Review: Born to Be Bad (Warner Archive) on Blogcritics.

From a script originally titled Bed of Roses, Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film noir Born to Be Bad is a sordid tale that has the parts for a juicy melodrama. But despite a couple of standout performances, the chemistry just isn’t there.

Actress Joan Fontaine had a piece of the screen rights to the 1928 women’s novel All Kneeling, and had earned enough Hollywood clout to have her pick of directors. She chose Nicholas Ray, but despite her choice of a favored director, Fontaine’s performance as the innocent-seeming but scheming Christabel is distant and uninvolving.

Ray began work on the movie with a distant approach. According to Patrick McGilligan’s biography of the director, Ray assembled his actors for an unusual theatrical experiment: a cold read of the script without inflection. This was meant to get the actors to relate to each other, but the session alienated Fontaine, who Ray later recalled as a diva: “all her talent dried up in that over-awareness.” We can’t know if this exercise doomed the production, but it certainly didn’t help it.

Ray’s boss at RKO at the time was legendary eccentric Howard Hughes, who wanted Robert Young (who became a television icon late in his career for Father Knows Best) to play the part of novelist Nick Bradley. Young would have given the part of the novelist a slighter disposition, but the director successfully lobbied for the grittier Robert Ryan. Ryan’s novelist is one of two men who instantly see through Christabel’s innocent act. The other one is artist Gobby, deliciously played by Mel Ferrer. What does it mean that the strongest performances in the film see through the central character?

Ray made Born to Be Bad  just months before a film where all of the elements came together to make a masterpiece: In a Lonely Place . Fans of the director may be intrigued by this failure, which did inspire a classic Carol Burnett skit. But vivid performances by Ryan and Ferrer aren’t enough to carry the film.

Unlike some Warner Archives titles, Born to Be Bad does come with a DVD extra: an alternate ending that includes one more scandal. But quantity doesn’t make up for the sluggish quality of this tepid drama.

Born to Be Bad is available directly from Warner Archive.

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DVD Review: The Cool Ones

Debbie Watson, Gil Peterson, and Roddy McDowall

Article first published as DVD Review: The Cool Ones (Warner Archive) on Blogcritics.

Nobody would ever mistake The Cool Ones for a good movie, but its DVD release by Warner Archives is a worthy addition to the camp section of your home video library. Originally released in April 1967, just before the summer of love checked in, its brand of pop and mildly rockified standards (“Just one of those things”?) was way behind the curve, even if Lee Hazelwood wrote a few decent songs for it. Director Gene Nelson had a few Elvis movies under his belt, and his career as a dancer probably helps keep this moving in its old-fashioned way. Production values count for a lot, and if The Cool Ones runs out of personality once you get past Roddy McDowall, the skewed camera angles, clever editing,  crazy dance moves, and eye-popping costumes make it enjoyable despite or even because it’s so dated.

Pop singer Cliff Donner (Gil Peterson, best known for a role in Battlestar Galactica) finds his star diminishing. Upwardly mobile go-go dancer Hallie Rogers (Debbie Watson) is dying to get a break. Rock impresario Tony Krum (McDowall) comes along to shepherd the pair as a manufactured boy/girl duo that takes America by quasi-rock-and-roll storm. Peterson ‘s “rock” persona is so wooden he might as well be a Gerry Anderson marionette, but the dated corniness that probably made this movie anathema to 1960s teens equals camp value for today’s audiences. Watson doesn’t fare that much better, but her performance of Lee Hazelwood’s “This town” packs a lot more drama than the version that was a hit for Frank and Nancy Sinatra.

The real star power comes from a character who doesn’t sing at all. Roddy McDowall’s character seems a continuation of his megalomaniacal Mollymuck in Lord Love A Duck. He imagined himself a successful Svengali in that sloppy if superior satire, but here the fantasy appears to be reality, as Krum wields a lot of apparent power over the day’s youth.

Cameos by Glen Campbell and The Leaves give the movie a little more cred in the rock department, and an uncredited bit part by Teri Garr will give some people a minor thrill. But the literal show stopper — she’s the last performer in the movie — is Mrs. Miller, a Mermanesque figure who recorded several comedy albums of her off-key singing for Capitol records in the 1960s. Her warbling version of Pet Clark’s “Downtown” broke Billboard’s top 100, which was better than Peterson did in his brief recording career.  Such is the fickle finger of popular taste. The Cool Ones is solidly in the lower-eschelon of rock movies. But as a window on movie executives’  misguided reading of the youth market, it’s a colorful hoot.

Like most Warner Archive titles, The Cool Ones does not include any DVD extras.

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DVD Review: Lonesome (Criterion Collection)

Article first published as DVD Review: Lonesome (Criterion Collection) on Blogcritics.

When Hungarian born director Paul Fejos came to Hollywood, he told producers he wanted to make a movie about the shortest time period possible: half a second. Universal executives thought he was crazy, but stars like Charlie Chaplin were impressed by Fejos’ 1928 film, The Last Moment, an impressionistic look at what goes through the mind of a man in his dying breath. Sadly, that film, as well as the pictures Fejos made in his native land, is lost to the ravages of time and nitrate stock. But his next film project, Lonesome,  survived, and a carefully restored print is now available in the full Criterion treatment.

The plot is a simple love story. A young man (Glen Tyron) and woman (Barbara Kent) working at menial jobs in Manhattan take an Independence Day trip to Coney Island where they fall in love, become briefly and harrowingly separated, and reunite in a happy ending. What Fejos brings to the film is a unique visual flair, informed by German expressionism but also tempered by a documentary sensibility that would lead him to quit commercial filmmaking entirely for a career as an explorer and anthropologist.

As film historian Richard Koszarski notes in his commentary track, Lonesome was not made in New York. Stock footage is combined with impressionistic backdrops and studio sets, including that of a subway station, that convey the excitement and alienation of the big metropolis. The marvels of the industrial age overwhelm and alienate the couple, from the alarm clocks that start their day to the crowded underground trains all the way through the couples’ work, he monotonously counting punches, she working at a busy switchboard, connecting people while she remains unconnected herself.

The film appeared during the film industry’s transition from silents to talkies, and a few scenes with awkward dialogue break the spell, especially when their voices take on the echo of the soundstage. It is in the predominantly silent passages that the film soars, from workplace scenes framed by the Roman numerals of a clock, a circle which enfolds and traps the people enslaved by it; to romantic tinted vistas of Coney Island’s long vanished Luna Park; to the frenetic, nightmarish montages of the faceless crowd.

Extras include a documentary featurette made from an oral history that Fejos recorded a year before his death in 1962. This surveys his life from his homeland, through forays into the film industry in Europe and the United States, to his long career in anthropology, a field in which he is probably better known than in cinematic circles.

A bonus disc includes two unrestored titles from his stint in Hollywood, both varieties of backstage melodrama that are not as consistently dazzling as Lonesome, but which contain impressive impressionistic flourishes. The 1927 film, The Last Performance (re-titled, The 12 Swords) stars Conrad Viedt, with Bela Lugosi in an uncredited bit part. Broadway (1929) was Universal’s most expensive picture at the time. For this big budget story of hoofers and gangsters, Fejos designed a crane which enabled massive cameras to make delicate overhead motions unheard of at the time. The film’s big finish was shot in an early Technicolor process.

Hal Mohr, the cinematographer on Broadway, is interviewed in a brief feature in which he describes the innovative crane, and how heartbroken he was to return to the studio years later to find the magnificent machinery rotting away. Much of early cinematic history has met the neglected fate of that machine, but thanks to the Criterion Collection for bringing this lesser known title out of the pages of the film history books into your living room.

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