Blu-Ray Review: John Carpenter’s Vampires & Ghosts of Mars

I love John Carpenter. He makes the sort of quality genre movies I adore and is responsible for a number of my all time favourite films. However, even a fan like me can’t deny his career went off the rails further down the line. The 80’s were a little wobbly with cast-iron classics like The Thing rubbing shoulders with enjoyable but flawed films like Prince of Darkness and Christine. Then in the 90’s things really started to go wrong. In the Mouth of Madness aside, which is very good, his output in the decade was not great and his output slowed down after that. Since the turn of the millennium he’s only directed two features and a couple of episodes of Masters of Horror. He is advancing in years so maybe he’s just too old to put the legwork in to making movies anymore, but you get the feeling he maybe just ran out of creative steam after a while or couldn’t get to make what he wanted anymore.

So, it’s interesting (and brave) that the cool new kids on the UK physical media block, Indicator/Powerhouse Films, have decided to add two late-period Carpenter films to their early slate, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. Neither film has a great reputation, but, being a fan of the director, I was willing to give them a chance and took the plunge. The films are being released separately, but I figured I’d review them together for obvious reasons. My thoughts are below.

Vampires

Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Don Jakoby
Based on a Novel by: John Steakley
Starring: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell, Tim Guinee
Country: USA, Japan
Running Time: 108 min
Year: 1998
BBFC Certificate: 18

What both of these films have in common is that they seemed to be jumping on a bandwagon when they were released. The film Vampires looks to be cashing in on is From Dusk Till Dawn. Like Robert Rodriguez’ film, it roughs up the vampire myth and sets it in the American desert (New Mexico here instead of Texas and Mexico in the earlier film). Jack Crow (James Woods) heads a team of hard-drinking tough guys, commissioned by the Catholic church to kill vampires who are quietly terrorising the world, little known to the general public. When all but one (Anthony Montoya – played by Daniel Baldwin) of Crow’s crew are massacred by the super-powerful master vampire Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), he sets out to get revenge, as well as to stop Valek retrieving an ancient Catholic relic that’s set to give him the power to be immune to sunlight.

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Blu-Ray Review: Videodrome

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits
Country: Canada
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1983
BBFC Certificate: 18


David Cronenberg is a director whose work I’m not as familiar with as I’d like. I’ve seen a fair few of his films, but largely when I was a teenager, so I can’t remember much about them other than the more famous scenes. I’ve not seen a couple of his classics at all in fact and only just got around to seeing his take on The Fly last year. In terms of his later work, I keep missing most of that too. The latest of his films I’ve seen is A History of Violence, which came out ten years ago.

So I’ve been keen to delve into Cronenberg’s career properly now that I’m a more experienced film lover and Arrow answered my call by releasing a ridiculously extensive 4 disc set of Videodrome. It’s one of the films I’d not seen for about 15 years, so was on my list of titles to watch.

It’s hard to sum up the plot of Videodrome as it’s quite a surreal film, particularly in the second half, and part of the pleasure of watching it is getting caught up in its nightmarish world. The first half seems more straight forward though, tricking the audience into thinking they know what they’re signing up for.

James Woods plays Max Renn, a TV executive working for Civic-TV, a cable channel that shows seedy low-rate programmes and films. Max is getting tired of the usual softcore crap that he peddles though. He thinks audiences want harder and more extreme entertainment and thinks he’s found it when a techie associate manages to access a mysterious broadcast called Videodrome. Basically just a series of violent torture scenes, the show grabs hold of Max and won’t let him go. After he gets more obsessed with it, he starts to experience hallucinations and gets drawn ever further into a twisted, bizarre world of sex, violence and television.

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A Month of Horror 2013 – Chapter 2

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You know, I think Peter Capaldi is going to be just fine as Dr. Who…

 

The Lair Of The White Worm (Ken Russell – 1988)
There’s a moment in this movie (right around 23:25) when it suddenly becomes readily apparent that this is a Ken Russell film. That moment is when things turn batshit crazy. It only lasts a minute or so and it’s a hallucination of sorts, but it comes out of nowhere after a young woman touches a cross which has been sprayed with snake venom from another woman with fangs. OK, so there had already been a bit of craziness beforehand, but the great thing about the film is that it can take these insane segments and fit them in ever so perfectly with the rest of the story. As much fun as I had watching it, I think Amanda Donohoe must have had even way more fun filming it as the owner of a large estate looking for a virgin to sacrifice to the titular creature (she’ll even go after boy scouts). Hugh Grant and Capaldi (as Angus Flint – how great a name is that?) are having a high old time as well and it translates across to the audience.

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First clip of Jobs and Woz from biopic jOBS

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I don’t know man. Looking the part and acting the part are two very different things and if this first clip from the upcoming jOBS is any indication, it looks like Ashton Kutcher might be a bust.

I wasn’t convinced that Kutcher had it in him to play the charismatic Jobs and this doesn’t help matters any. All I see is Kutcher, not an actor melting into a role. That said, the clip is very short and who knows, maybe Kutcher can pull it off.

The Joshua Michael Stern directed jOBS, a director best known for the mediocre political comedy Swing Vote, also stars Dermot Mulroney, James Woods, Amanda Crew and Josh Gad as the brainy Steve Wozniak. Wonder if the real Woz will have a cameo.

We’ll find out just how well Kutcher fares tomorrow, when the movie premieres at Sundance before it’s theatrical release on April 19th.

Cronenberg talks Videodrome in Toronto

cronenberg_VideodromeA full house at the Ontario Cinematheque got to see a scratchy but vibrant print of David Cronenberg‘s 1983 body/mind/technology mind-fuck Videodrome. Two things I learned before during my first celluloid viewing of the film: First is the amusing and interesting connection to local Toronto TV station, CityTV which sounds a lot like the fictional CivicTV in the film (and one of the execs is named Moses); how I missed this connection in the past is quite baffling, considering CityTV was such an upstart and ‘dangerous’ in their programming with uncensored swearing and soft core pornography (The ‘Baby Blue’ Movies) on the occasional late night programming slot. Second is that the film has not so much as ‘aged well’ as ‘aged strangely.’ An unconventional (and considering the amount of critical ink spilled in the past 25 years, prophetic and affecting) film by having Toronto play itself (Note despite prominent TTC buses and subways, 1980s Scanners has the title card “Los Angeles”), it remains an interesting visual artifact of the city in the early 1980s. Yet the strange editing rhythm (intentional, or simply a lucky artifact of a still finding-his-way filmmaker, his real coming out party was to come three years later with The Fly) is vague and confusing in the second half. Sure, Max Renn (James Woods) is in full brain tumour slash video hallucination mode at this point, but the film still throws in some non-sequitur locations like a rusty grounded lakeboat for no apparent reason. Yet the very non-connected nature of scene to scene storytelling gives a dangerous edge the the narrative that plays in the films favour.

The director himself was on hand to intro the film, and I happened to have my voice-recorder there to get an audio feed of the two local entertainment rag critics, Eye Weekly’s Adam Nayman and Now’s Norman Wilner talk a bit about their own personal experience with the film and its context towards the city of Toronto (the film was the last of the Ontario Cinematheque’s Toronto on Film series) before bringing Cronenberg onto the stage to talk about the production, the actors, the city and how he feels about his own cult masterpiece today.

Video is tucked under the seat. (watch or listen at your own risk, Long Live the New Flesh!)
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Long Live the Old Flesh

Videodrome Movie StillI contemplated not posting this story at all but it’s worth a mention even if I have nothing new to add to the chorus of voices that have already put in their two cents about it. The remake bandwagon continues to churn along and taken off the chopping block today: Videodrome.

The Cronenberg classic, one of the director’s earlier works, unleashed upon the general public the idea of entertainment and technology as a monster that will consume the consumer and though I don’t think the film or the director received much attention outside of horror circles, the film continued the filmmaker’s fascination with the physical effects of horror on the body while the terms “Long live the new flesh” and “body horror” became synonymous with the director. I didn’t see it until I was well into my teens but years later, the film still held up (and continues to hold up) remarkably well. Just take a look at this classic scene in which Max (James Woods), the cable-tv programmer, has a somewhat erotic and thoroughly disturbing moment with his television.

Obviously, by today’s standards this will look really dated (the big box TV) as will some of the other technology in the film (VCRs anyone?) but to me, that all adds to the creep factor and it doesn’t change the fact the film remains a poignant (maybe more so today than ever before) and effectively disturbing little film. Universal Pictures, who distributed the original, originally passed up the chance to remake the film but have now jumped at the opportunity to create newer flesh and according to Variety, they’re also looking to update the story though not simply with new technology.

Writer Ehren Kruger (whose track record includes The Ring, The Ring 2, The Skeleton Key and Blood and Chocolate) will “infuse it [the remake] with the possibilities of nano-technology and blow it up into a large-scale sci-fi action thriller.” So basically, they’re going to blow it up to appeal to the masses.

It’s a good thing remakes don’t tarnish or change the originals otherwise I’d be throwing a fit. The way it stands, this is simply a reminder that I should really invest in the Criterion edition of the original; it’s probably well worth my money.

A Martin Scorsese Marathon

Basically, you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say, ‘My name is on that. I did that. It’s OK’. But don’t get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear.” – Martin Scorsese

For the better part of the last three decades, I have been a fan of Martin Scorsese. My admiration first took bloom in the summer of 1985, and happened to coincide with what I consider to be the discovery of my young adult life; set off the main drag of the town I grew up in, I found a small video store. Now, this in itself was no great revelation; in the years before Blockbuster came barreling into my area, forcing all the smaller video chains out of business, there were at least half a dozen such stores within a 3-mile radius. But the moment I walked into this particular video palace, I knew it was special. Where most were lining their shelves with numerous copies of the ‘hot new releases’, this one had titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, films that the others simply didn’t offer. For me, this store was a treasure trove, and I returned there often, sometimes 3-4 times a week, uncovering classic after classic, films that, to this day, I consider some of the finest ever made.

And it was here that I first found Mean Streets.

Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the head for a 15-year-old from the suburbs; a marriage of images and rock music, violence and pain the likes of which I had never seen before, offering a glimpse into a lifestyle that I found all too real, and a little bit frightening. I must have rented it at least six times that summer, and as a result, Mean Streets fast became my favorite movie. More than this, it was my jumping-off point into the career of Martin Scorsese. After Mean Streets, I moved on to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, two more shots to the head. Through these three films, I realized just how deep, just how down-and-dirty, and just how moving the cinema could be. They marked a turning point in my development as a film fan. Movies were no longer limited to the land of make believe; they would also be a window overlooking the real world.

Now, almost 24 years after I first walked into that video store, I’ve decided to take my admiration to the next, perhaps the ultimate, level. Over the course of the last several weeks, I sat down with everything that home video has to offer of Martin Scorsese’s work behind the camera, 26 films in all, and what I uncovered on this love-fest of mine proved to be just as enlightening as that first viewing of Mean Streets all those years ago.

As I sat watching one Scorsese movie after the other, I found myself asking, “What exactly is it that constitutes a Martin Scorsese film”? It was a question I had to pose, because I quickly realized that most of my initial beliefs, the pre-conceptions I had built up about the man and his career, only told part of the story.

For one, there was my presumption that the recurring trait in every Scorsese film was a down-to-earth quality, where the genuine, the realistic, would be favored above all else. Well, this is certainly true in some of Scorsese’s finest films, especially those where actual events served as a foundation (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator). However, it was wrong of me to discount the role that fantasy played in Scorsese’s work. The opening scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore looks as if it was lifted right out of Gone With the Wind, and the musical numbers of New York, New York were obvious nods to the Hollywood big-budget spectaculars of the 40’s and 50’s. There is the dreamy romance of The Age of Innocence, and the hilarious bad luck of Paul Hackett in After Hours; in short, films that have little or no basis in reality whatsoever, proving that the fantastic plays just as important a role in the great director’s work as reality does.
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Hidden Treasures – Week of June 29th

Now, the latest installment of Hidden Treasures. At the suggestion of some of the Row Three community (OK, it was Henrik), I’m toying with a new format. Please let me know what you think of it.

Django (1966)
Played by Franco Nero, the title character of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film, Django, is just about as textbook-perfect a spaghetti western gunslinger as you can get; a man as quick with a gun as he is short on conversation. In fact, the only thing that sets Django apart from other heroes of this genre is his traveling companion, which just happens to be a coffin. As the opening titles of Django play out, our hero is seen dragging this coffin behind him, through the mud and up a steep hill. As character introductions go, this one’s hard to top.

Within moments of his (and his coffin’s) arrival in a Mexican border town, Django finds himself in the middle of an ongoing feud between two murderous mobs. On one side are the local Mexican bandits, led by the ruthless General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo), and on the other a crew of American Confederate soldiers under the command of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). As is the case with most such feuds, gun battles often break out in the middle of town, where innocent civilians inadvertently serve as target practice. What neither side counted on, however, was Django, who’s blazing guns and badass attitude show no favorites when it comes to dishing out his own unique brand of justice.

As mentioned above, Django has all the makings of a great Spaghetti western hero, yet like all such films, his heroics wouldn’t amount to much if it weren’t for the lowlifes on the other side of his gun. In Django we’re given two strong adversaries, the first of which is Major Jackson, a bigoted Confederate Army officer with a hatred for all things Mexican. The second baddie, General Rodriguez, proves just as brutal as his American counterpart, and even cuts the ear off a man he accuses of spying for Jackson. At the outset, Django and Rodriguez appear to be friends, yet friendships like theirs aren’t destined to last very long.

Due to its excessive violence, Django was banned outright in many countries, with the MPAA refusing to issue it a rating upon its release in the United States. With one or two exceptions, the violence in Django is tame compared to what can be seen in movies today, yet what hasn’t dissipated with time is this film’s exhilarating style, heightened by a handful of incredible gunfights. With action and excitement aplenty, Django takes its rightful place as one of the best the Spaghetti Western genre has to offer…

…Coffin and all.

Owning Mahowney (2003)
Dan Mahowney (Philip Seymour Hoffman) works as an assistant manager for a large Toronto-based bank. With his low-key mannerisms, he is the consummate professional, a man who serves his customers while keeping a sharp eye on the bank’s bottom line. He is smart, well respected, and someone you can depend on to get the job done. Dan Mahowney is also a compulsive gambler, one who has embezzled over $10 million from his employers to feed a habit he can no longer control. Owning Mahowney, directed by Richard Kwietniowski, tells both sides of his story.

Based on an actual event that occurred in Toronto in the early 1980’s, Owning Mahowney is the detailed study of a man who lived two lives, that is until the day one of those lives finally took control of the other. At first, Mahowney successfully concealed his addictions from those closest to him, including his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver), who never once suspected that the man she loved flew to Atlantic City every weekend, dropped tens of thousands of dollars, then returned home to her. In fact, Mahowney became such a regular at one casino that its President, Victor Foss (John Hurt), took to treating Mahowney as if he were a member of the royal family. Yet as his notoriety as a gambler grew, so did the danger that his world would come crashing down around him.

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a remarkably reserved performance as Mahowney, a man who had perfected his poker face to the point he wore it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He loved the thrill of the odds, and this love became so addicting that it extended beyond the personal to his professional life as well. He started by slyly withdraws millions against the loan account of the bank’s biggest customer. Then, to get his hands on even more money, Mahowney creates a fictitious loan account, gives it his personal approval, and begins withdrawing heavily from it as well. Having made a career as a shrewd, careful administrator, Mahowney was now taking staggering risks. Dan Mahowney the professional was slowly disappearing, and Dan Mahowney the gambler was moving in full-time.

The chances that the title character takes in Owning Mahowney, both at and away from the gambling table, will have you cringing. Yet while Dan Mahowney certainly lost control of his life, we come away believing that, in the end, it was a sacrifice he was more than willing to make. For Mahowney, gambling meant living, and every moment he spent away from his obsession was a moment wasted.

In the end, he wasn’t wasting any time at all.

Northfork (2003)
Written and directed by brothers Mark and Michael Polish, Northfork is the kind of movie I adore, a film brave enough to introduce fantasy into a realistic setting as it simultaneously balances elements of both comedy and drama. Whether you want to laugh, cry, or simply be amazed, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Northfork.

It’s 1955, and the good citizens of the town of Northfork have been asked to abandon their homes to make way for a new hydroelectric dam, which will flood the town once it becomes fully operational. Yet despite repeated warnings, not everyone has left Northfork, and it falls to a small group of men in black suits to make sure those who remain leave before it’s too late. Among these men is Walter O’Brien (James Woods) and his son, Willis (Mark Polish), who, along with the others, are promised tracts of land in a brand new community as a reward for performing this most difficult of tasks. As they’re quick to learn, however, many who remain in Northfork are determined to stay at all costs. Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) is one such person, who’s remained in Northfork mostly because he’s too busy caring for a dying young boy named Irwin (Duel Farnes) to even think of moving. As father Harlan has come to realize, Irwin is a very special child. While lapsing in and out of consciousness, Irwin experiences visions that have him convinced he’s the long-lost Angel of Northfork. In fact, a small band of actual angels have themselves just arrived in Northfork, looking to investigate Irwin’s ‘divine’ claim.

Elements of several genres show their face throughout Northfork. First off, there’s the dramatic, on both a grand scale (the loss of the town) and a more personal one (the illness of young Irwin). In fact, the film’s dramatic moments, which I found to be so very powerful, are themselves enough to transform Northfork into an unforgettable cinematic experience. But then there’s comedy as well, perpetrated mostly by the men in black suits during their various run-ins with Northfork’s most stubborn citizens. One such resident, Mr. Stalling (Marshall Bell), isn’t leaving because he believes he’s properly prepared for the coming floodwaters; he’s transformed his house into an Ark. While Mr. Stalling didn’t have enough time to gather 2 giraffes, 2 tigers or even 2 chickens, he was at least able to rustle himself up two wives. Finally, and perhaps most impressive, is Northfork’s sense of fantasy, presented within the story of Irwin and his four angel friends. One of these four, an angel named Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), believes Irwin is, indeed, the lost angel of Northfork, while her accomplices, such as Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) and Happy (Anthony Edwards), have their doubts (the fourth angel, Cod, played by Ben Foster, may or may not agree; we never know for sure because he never speaks). The imagery surrounding these angelic characters is inspiring, and the various scenes they appear in challenge us time and again to accept the incredible, even when presented within the context of this story’s reality.

With Northfork, the Polish brothers have successfully combined fantastical whimsy with the everyday humdrum, at times leaving us to wonder where the whimsy begins and the humdrum ends. Films like Northfork carry with them the promise of marvelous possibilities lurking around every corner, and I, for one, loved this particular journey to uncover them.