Offbeat Otto: Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)

bray One of my favorite Otto Preminger films has finally found its way onto DVD and Blu-ray thanks to Olive Films. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) was never released on home video so this marks the first time Preminger’s offbeat comedy-drama has been made easily accessible outside of airing on television where it was often edited or given the pan and scan treatment. Hopefully the Olive Films release will help the film find a new audience that appreciates its thought-provoking premise and quirky charm.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was originally based on a 1968 novel by Marjorie Kellogg, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. It tells the story of three misfits who form a makeshift family after leaving the hospital where they had been convalescing. Liza Minelli plays Junie Moon, a quirky and resourceful young woman disfigured in a vicious attack by a psychopath she once dated. Her compatriots include Robert Moore as Warren; a wheelchair bound gay man crippled in a shooting incident and Ken Howard as the childlike Arthur. Arthur is suffering from an undiagnosed form of epilepsy or neurological disorder as well as mental trauma after being involuntarily institutionalized when he was a child. We get to know these three unlikely companions as they move into a dilapidated old house owned by a flamboyant landlady (Kay Thompson), find work with a local fishmonger (James Coco), adopt a neighborhood owl and stray dog and frolic at a seaside resort with an affable beach boy (Fred Williamson). Things don’t end well for the troubled trio but they make the most of their short time together.

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Opiate of the Masses: Silk Stockings (1957)

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Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s penultimate leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and  Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.
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A Toast to Dolemite (1975)

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“These rhymes and raps that I have were told 50 years ago by the beer joint and liquor store wise men who used to sit out in front of the store, drinking beer, lying, and talking shit. What I did, I picked them up. I even gave older winos money to tell me those tales. And then I’d take them and freshen them up.” – Rudy Ray Moore

Rudy Ray Moore was an X-rated griot, a traveling storyteller who popularized beer-joint folklore in black communities throughout the 1970s. His routine, in which he told outrageously filthy tales in singsong rhyme, was known as “toasting”, a pivotal influence on hip hop. Like the rappers he influenced (“He’s the greatest rapper of all time” – Snoop Dogg), Moore was intent on channeling the personalities of the neighborhoods he grew up in  (he was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and bounced to Milwaukee and Cleveland as a teen). Wanting to expand his reach after his “toast” albums became underground bestsellers, he started writing a screenplay based on one of his characters – the exaggeratedly macho gangster/pimp/loverman Dolemite. With no one to fund him, he saved money from his non-stop touring and made the feature for around $100,000 of his own money. It is an outrageous, hilarious comedy that never tries to cater to white audiences. Dolemite became famous for the ineptitude of its technical shortcomings – boom mics dipping into frame and the clumsy martial arts choreography – but for black audiences it was a rare depiction of a familiar character, like spending 90 minutes with one of their wisecracking drunk uncles. As writer and performance artist Darius James put it, “Unlike most of the commercial cinema’s Black-market movies, which rely on the story formulas of their honkoid counterparts, the movies of Rudy Ray Moore are rooted in the structure, imagery, and motifs of Black oral narrative.” After decades of circulating in faded dupes, the enterprising exploitation experts at Vinegar Syndrome unearthed a 35mm negative, and scanned and restored Dolemite in 2K. The resulting Blu-ray, out today, is so bright and clean it’s like seeing it for the first time.

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Death Walks Twice: A Giallo Double Feature

dw10The fine folks at Arrow deserve applause for their diligent efforts to release a number of exceptional giallo films on Blu-ray in recent years. Some of the giallo titles you can currently purchase from them include the suggestively titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) as well as cornerstones of the genre such as Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) along with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Bay of Blood (1971) and Deep Red (1975). Arrow discs typically boast beautiful packaging that rivals Criterion and they come loaded with extras including accompanying booklets, audio commentaries and video interviews with the film’s creators along with other industry professionals.

Their latest offering is a limited edition double disc Blu-ray box set titled Death Walks Twice that contains two outstanding examples of the genre, Death Walks in High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972). Both films were directed by Luciano Ercoli and feature Ercoli’s wife, actress Susan Scott (a.k.a. Nieves Navarro). Like many of the best Italian thrillers, these two budget conscious productions look more luxurious than their American counterparts thanks to the creative direction, exotic European settings (Milan, Paris, London and Catalonia) and their innovative use of period specific aesthetics and attitudes including the music, architecture, fashions, and shifting sexual mores of the times. Comprised of labyrinth-like plots inspired by classic Alfred Hitchcock movies and the best Film Noir, Arrow’s new Death Walks Twice box set should appeal to genre novices as well as seasoned giallo fans.

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Thrill Kill: 10 to Midnight (1983)

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Charles Bronson’s association with the exploitation mavens at Cannon Films started with Death Wish II (1982), and continued through six years and seven more movies of profitable urban bloodshed. The second of these was 10 to Midnight (1983), a ultra-sleazy slasher film in which Bronson’s morally dubious cop attempts to protect his daughter from a loony who commits murders in the nude. Now out on Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), it’s a lowest-common-denominator product that gives the people what they want, and what they wanted in 1983 was healthy heaping of gently jogging nudity (male and female), a few spurts of blood, and Bronson looking constipated, apparently.

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Boob Tube: UHF (1989)

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UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.

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Oedipus West: The Man From Laramie (1955)

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The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.

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Rough, Raw & Randy: UP THE JUNCTION (1968)

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Peter Collinson’s effective slice-of-life drama UP THE JUNCTION (1968) makes its DVD and Blu-ray debut in the U.S. this week thanks to Olive Films. Today the film is often fondly remembered by fans of sixties cinema for its South London setting, colorful mod fashions, beehive hairdos, boastful bikers and jazzy psychedelic pop score by Manfred Mann. But UP THE JUNCTION has more to offer viewers besides an abundance of great style and an unforgettable soundtrack.

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Ancient Evil is Now a Modern Industry: THIRST (1979)

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In Rod Hardy’s THIRST (1979) we’re introduced to Kate (Chantal Contouri), an attractive waif-like young fashion designer with a pet cat and a serious problem. Kate’s the last descendent of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, often cited as history’s first and most prolific female serial killer, and she’s been kidnapped by a group of power hungry aristocratic vampires known as ‘The Brotherhood’ who need her blood so they can fulfill their diabolical plan to turn the rest of us into human cattle. Will Kate outwit her sinister captors and survive her ordeal or succumb to her baser instincts? Thanks to a new Blu-ray package from Severin Films you can discover the answer to that question for yourself.

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Favorite Home Video Releases of 2013

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Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

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