Tuesday, 31 Aug. 2004
On the Street: If it looks like a lightweight street-week, don't worry next Tuesday will break the bank. Up today is the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with retail distribution handled by Fox, while Paramount's on the board with the parody South Park: The Passion of the Jew. But it isn't all fun and games from the Matterhorn in addition to the middling thriller Twisted starring Ashley Judd, the entire first season of Star Trek: The Original Series is on the street in a nifty plastic tricorder case. And Criterion Collectors have just one to pick up today, David Cronenberg's logic-defying Videodrome. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 30 Aug. 2004
Disc of the Week: This is what is known: In 1983 David Cronenberg's strange, lyrical, and indelible Videodrome was released, and 20 years later the question remains "What is Videodrome?" Following up the four films that cemented his reputation as the master of venereal horror (from 1975's Shivers to 1981's Scanners), Videodrome was the apogee of Cronenberg's career at that point, as both an experimental film (which his early college films were) and a horror movie. Perhaps he knew he couldn't take it any further it also was his last original screenplay for sixteen years, until 1999's eXistenZ, which itself comments on Videodrome. That's the baggage. But what the heck is this film, and what is it saying? Perhaps it's best not to ask Cronenberg explores his fascination with body mutation to its own logical end. Or perhaps "logical" isn't the best word. The film has the pace of a fever-dream, and like a dream narrative, how much is real is always in question. What isn't in question is how fascinating the picture remains to this day.
Sleazy cable TV president Max Renn (James Woods) is looking for the latest show that hopefully will take the porn and violence he sells to the next level. Through his tech guy Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), he stumbles on a brief snippet of a program called "Videodrome," which consists of people being tortured and murdered in front of a red clay background. Thinking that this may be the next big thing, he tries to track the show down, but the feed is being bounced around and is eventually found to be broadcast out of Pittsburgh. And who's behind it is unknown. Max's new girlfriend Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry) also finds the show intoxicating she has strong masochistic tendencies, and to investigate further she decides to go to Pittsburgh, hoping to become a "contestant." Eventually Max is led to Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creely), who only appears on television, and he learns more with the help of Brian's daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits), who gives him a video that confirms her father is dead, killed by simply watching Videodrome. It turns out that Videodrome is not what it seems it is being used to test a new form of mind-control that causes visions and tumors. But the further Max falls under the show's influence, the more his reality becomes distorted. After all, the program's produces hope to use him as an assassin to get Videodrome on the air.
What has always separated David Cronenberg from other horror directors is the intelligence he applies to his work. Although his films are just as visceral, it's the ideas behind the gore that tend to stick in the mind. And Videodrome is the director's ultimate "head" movie, in that virtually everything takes place within Max Renn's mind. Like Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet (1930), the film has the logic of a poet's dream except in this case, it's about an artist exploring the dark side of sexuality and violence. As the story moves further along, reality itself becomes distorted, and it's impossible to say how much Max's body mutations and visions (of such things as pulsating eroticized televisions) are in his head and how much is actually happening a point Cronenberg intentionally blurs. But since Cronenberg has always been fascinated by human forms in mutation, and how technology becomes an extension of human existence, Videodrome comes across as his grandest statement on the topic. In fact, the picture itself mutates (perhaps partially because filming began without a completed script). At first the movie seems to be about how exposure to extreme events can be corrosive, but it's later revealed that the effects of Videodrome could be accomplished over a test pattern, while some of the important characters have been dead since their first appearances. The hallucinogenic imagery becomes an end to itself the sight of Renn sticking his gun into a VCR slot that has opened in his chest, with its decidedly sexual implications, is something that could have only escaped from David Cronenberg's imagination.
The Criterion Collection presents the uncut Videodrome in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and in its original monaural audio (1.0). A loaded two-disc set, the first disc contains two audio commentaries, the first with director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, the second with actors James Woods and Deborah Harry. Also included on the first disc is "Camera" (7 min.), a short film Cronenberg made for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto film festival with Videodrome co-star Les Carlson. On Disc Two there's the special-effects documentary "Forging the New Flesh" (28 min.), created by video-effects supervisor Michael Lennick, which interviews Lennick, make-up artist Rick Baker, physical effects supervisor Frank Carere, make-up effects crew member Bill Sturgeon, location manager David Coatsworth, and also includes vintage interviews with Cronenberg and Woods. Next up is "Effects men" (19 min.), which consists of audio interviews with Lennick and Baker. In the "Bootleg Video" section, the video footage included in the film is shown uncut: "Samurai Dreams" (5 min.) features commentary by Cronenberg, and a second audio track with Lennick and Irwin, who provide the sole track for the "Videodrome" footage (7 min.), while Lennick goes solo on the "Helmet Cam Test" footage (5 min.). "Fear on Film" (26 min.) is the most intriguing supplement, collecting Cronenberg for an interview with fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis, and it's hosted by future director Mick Garris. Though it holds more promise than it delivers, the topics of conversation are reasonably interesting. Also included are three trailers, a vintage "making-of" spot (8 min.), and extensive stills galleries. What unfortunately is not included are the cut scenes which were used for television screenings. Videodrome: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: With the waning days of August and the traditionally lax Labor Day weekend ahead, Miramax took a gamble on Jet Li, and Hero took honors at the weekend box-office after sitting on the studio shelf for two years. The film's $17.8 million gross was respectable for late-summer, followed by Sony's Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, which earned $13.2 million for the second spot. Meanwhile, arriving much, much further down the chart was Paramount's Suspect Zero starring Ben Kingsley and Aaron Eckhart, which managed just $3.4 million, while Sony's predictably awful Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 failed to crack the top ten with $3.3 million. Critics heaped praise on Hero, while Anacondas and Zero skewed mixed-to-negative. Superbabies was unanimously panned.
In continuing release, last week's winner Exorcist: The Beginning took a tumble from first to fifth place, adding just $6.7 million in its second weekend to $30.8 million overall. Paramount's comedy Without a Paddle fared better with an $8.7 million frame, holding down the third spot with $27.8 million to date. And Disney's Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement is over the $75 million mark. DreamWorks' Collateral starring Tom Cruise has finished its first month with $80 million, and not to be missed is the slow-burn thriller Open Water, which has now taken in $23.5 million for Lions Gate, much of it in limited release. And finally off the list after a massive summer run is Sony's Spider-Man 2, which will clear $370 million before it arrives on DVD later this year.
New on screens this Wednesday is the historical epic Vanity Fair starring Reese Witherspoon, while titles condemned to a Labor Day debut include The Cookout, Paparazzi, and Wicker Park. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include Star Trek: The Original Series: Season One, Twisted, Ella Enchanted, The White Dawn, Lord Jim, Terror Train, Desire Under the Elms, Videodrome: The Criterion Collection, and South Park: The Passion of the Jew. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 24 Aug. 2004
On the Street: His Royal Baddass of Funk rules over all he surveys, and that includes this week's DVD list Warner has three Prince films on the street with the iconic Purple Rain in a new two-disc special edition, and the much less loved Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. New from Fox is the surprisingly sweet The Girl Next Door in theatrical and unrated versions, as well as the latest installment of Futurama. Rom-com fans can look for Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore in New Line's lightweight legal comedy The Laws of Attraction, while Jim Caviezel can be seen in the little-seen Highwaymen. Criterion collectors have another Fellini film to put on the shelf with I Vitelloni, while Lars von Trier's Dogville is new from Lions Gate. New from Buena Vista is the storybook romance Ella Enchanted as well as the Hong Kong import Shaolin Soccer. And fresh from Columbia's catalog is a re-release of Raising Victor Vargas and Richard Brooks' 1965 Lord Jim starring Peter O'Toole. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 23 Aug. 2004
Disc of the Week: From the very first scene, as rampaging seniors wreak havoc on Westport High School to the strains of David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure," one realizes that The Girl Next Door (2004) isn't going to be your typical high school comedy, despite its back-of-a-matchbook plot summary class president falls for ex-porn star. And it's that premise, pitched right over home plate in the film's trailer, that probably hurt the overall box-office results, making the picture seem just another raunchy American Pie cash-in, and without any high-profile stars. But if The Girl Next Door didn't connect with audiences on the big screen (taking in a paltry $14 million domestically), it's bound to be saved by home video, which also helped turn Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998) into a modern classic instead of a theatrical thud. And it's the sort of company director Luke Greenfield's coming-of-age saga deserves to keep, along with another film that transcends its genre, Paul Brickman's Risky Business, and with distinct echoes of both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Graduate. It's the difference between movies that are about being young and movies about where youth inevitably ends.
Emile Hirsch stars in The Girl Next Door as Matthew Kidman, an overachiever in Westport, Conn., who's managed to win entry to Georgetown University, thanks to being class president and yearbook editor. But as class president, he isn't terribly popular. As yearbook editor, he finds he's the only student who can't manage to form any personal memories from the past four years. In short, Matthew simply doesn't fit in, and he spends most of his time with his pals Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz (Paul Dano), who are equally geeky Klitz gives new meaning to the term "risk-averse," while Eli spends most of his time absorbing porn videos. But when 19-year-old Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) moves in to the house next door to Matthew's, he immediately falls for the stunning blonde. She also takes a liking to him, finding his charming, awkward innocence to be refreshing. But it's only a matter of time before Eli picks out Matthew's new girlfriend as a porn star, and he has the videotape to prove it. Matthew's confusion is only exacerbated by the appearance of Danielle's manager, film producer Kelly (Timothy Olyphant), who takes young Matthew under his wing. But Matthew's determined love for Gabrielle comes at a price realizing Matthew won't go away, Kelly proceeds to wreck his reputation, and he steals a $25,000 scholarship account from the young man as well, leaving it to Matthew and Gabrielle to raise the cash in just one weekend. Fortunately, Gabrielle knows a few people who can help.
If the typical teenage comedy is played strictly for laughs and a bit of storybook romance, those that stand above the rest do something much more: They use unusual premises to convey very real things about our formative years so real that they can strike a nerve whether you graduated high school three years ago or thirty. And perhaps the most universal of these is nothing less than sheer boredom, the utter sense of stagnation that strikes college-bound seniors who are ready to embrace the risks and rewards of an emerging adulthood but remained confined, if only for a matter of a few more months, in the endless corridors of overcrowded public education. Like Risky Business, The Girl Next Door taps in to the most fundamental of male fantasies at this time: Sex. Lots of it, with a hot trophy chick who would make the school's pituitary cases on the football team go weak at the knees. But it's a fantasy that will show its seams, and a proper coming-of-age movie isn't merely about the freedom that adulthood offers, but also the accountability it requires, particularly when young people find they must make serious choices for the first time in their lives. When you're 18, you can have everything you want and everything you want is about to go horribly, horribly wrong. Despite its sex-comedy gloss, The Girl Next Door is equally reflective and poignant, and with a remarkable cast that makes the film that much more enjoyable, in part because they are largely unknowns. As Matthew, Emile Hirsch captures the part of the everyman loser in a school full of letterman's jackets, almost immediately conveying a sweetness and vulnerability that is lost in a sea of students but comes to the fore when he's alone with Gabrielle it's a remarkably charismatic performance from a teen actor, matched only by a young Matthew Broderick two decades earlier. Elisha Cuthbert is equally archetypal as the object of Matthew's insistent romance, not only because of her natural beauty, but because she encapsulates the ideal adolescent girlfriend in every scene she's thoughtful, funny, and challenging, always coming across as the sort of mature, sophisticated female puzzle that every young man feels compelled to decipher. Supporting work is consistent throughout: Both Chris Marquette and Paul Dano complete Matthew's geek-triumvirate with their own distinct personalities, and Timothy Olyphant simply owns every moment he has on screen as the ultra-hip porn-producer who can be the best big brother in the world or a teenager's worst nightmare, depending on his mood. Olyphant is brilliant not just because he can turn on a dime, but also because it seems like we all knew somebody like him when we all were a lot younger.
Fox's DVD release of The Girl Next Door features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements on Side A include a feature-length commentary from director Luke Greenfield and a pop-up subtitle track that plays throughout the feature, offering both behind-the-scenes notes and general trivia. Side B features include scene-specific commentaries from Emile Hirsch and Elisha Cuthbert, the behind-the-scenes featurette "A Look Next Door" (10 min.), "The Eli Experience," during which co-star Chris Marquette visits the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas (8 min.), 16 deleted and extended scenes with director's commentary, a gag reel (3 min.), stills, and trailers. The Girl Next Door is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: The late-summer film festival continues apace, this time led by Warner's Exorcist: The Beginning, which topped the box-office chart with $18.1 million, outdistancing its only debut competition, Paramount's comedy Without a Paddle, which scraped up $13.7 million in receipts. Also new to the chart is Lions Gate's thriller Open Water, which expanded to wide release after two weeks and took in $11.7 million, pushing it to $14.8 million overall. As is common with August and September debuts, critics lumped scorn on Exorcist and Paddle. However, Open Water has been popular with reviewers and filmgoers alike.
In continuing release, last week's winner Alien vs. Predator tumbled to fourth place, but its $63 million 10-day cume looks good on Fox's spreadsheet. Disney's Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement also has been a late-summer surprise, slipping just one spot to third with $61.3 million so far. And DreamWorks' Collateral starring Tom Cruise is looking sharp with $70.1 million after three frames. Universal's The Bourne Supremacy is now over $150 million, while Paramount's The Manchurian Candidate remains the season's underperformer with just $54 million after one month. And on the way to DVD prep is Fox's I, Robot, which will head for the doors with more than $135 million to its credit.
Labor Day approaches, and new films headed for screens this Friday include Suspect Zero starring Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mr. Beaks has posted a sneak-preview of Warner's two-disc Purple Rain: 20th Anniversary Edition, while new spins from the rest of the team this week include Duel: Collector's Edition, The Laws of Attraction, I Vitelloni: The Criterion Collection, Shaolin Soccer, The Sugarland Express, Graffiti Bridge, Under the Cherry Moon, Lateline: The Complete Series, Highwaymen, Raising Victor Vargas: Special Edition, The Girl Next Door, and Chopping Mall. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 17 Aug. 2004
On the Street: The Warner waves just keep coming for the month of August, and this week marks the debut of their new Martin Scorsese Collection, which includes re-issues of Goodfellas and Mean Streets, as well as After Hours, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Who's That Knocking At My Door?. Also new from Warner is the thriller Taking Lives starring Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke, as well as New York Minute with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Notable catalog releases this week from Universal include Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express and his classic TV thriller Duel, which makes its DVD debut after several delays. Arriving under the radar is the French drama Bon Voyage from Columbia TriStar and indie rom-com Seeing Other People from Sundance, while Lions Gate has released a new special edition of the supernatural Stir of Echoes starring Kevin Bacon. And new from Paramount is Lateline: The Complete Series starring Al Franken. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 16 Aug. 2004
Disc of the Week: It's odd noting that two of Hollywood's great inside-outsiders, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese who've created movies that are raw, unflinching, and definitely of the counter-culture generation spawned two of the most famous and longest-running television sitcoms. Ironic, because anything that lasts on television has to be antithetical to their styles. For whatever reasons, Altman's 1970 Korea-conflict movie spawned "M*A*S*H" (which ran from 1972-83), while Scorsese's 1974 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore brought on "Alice" (1976-85). Then again, it was a strange time in Hollywood. The film nerds took over and changed the way movies were made, if only for a couple of years, and Scorsese was at the head of the pack. Though there's no denying his greatness, Scorsese is best-known for his gangster pictures (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino) and his antisocial-loner films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), which focus on Catholic-guilt-ridden men who don't understand women (and often don't care to). And yet throughout his career, for every movie that follows this pattern, Scorsese delivers one outside of the mold. There's Goodfellas, but there's also Kundun, and The Last Waltz, and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. And with Alice, the director delivers a dramatic comedy about a woman forced to raise a child on her own it couldn't be more against type. Scorsese is more of a journeyman director than he's given credit for, and Alice is one of his better films that gets shuffled aside, trod upon by the foot of Auteur Criticism.
Alice first opens in Academy ratio (1.33:1), and in what looks to be Technicolor. After a Douglas Sirk-esque opening credit sequence, we are introduced to young Alice (played by Mia Bendixsen at eight), who's singing along to Alice Faye's "You'll Never Know." But as she's introduced on a farm (a la The Wizard of Oz), the fission of Sirk's "Woman's Picture" genre quickly becomes evident the young Alice swears like a sailor, and the movie then switches to a tracking shot of Alice's house, scored to Mott the Hoople. Twenty-seven years later, Alice (Ellen Burstyn, who won an Academy Award for her performance) is married to a slightly abusive husband Donald (Billy Green Bush) and has a loving and playful relationship with her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). But when tragedy strikes, Alice and her son are forced to hit the road, where Alice hopes to get to Monterey, Calif., and become a singer; it's a dream she abandoned when she got married. On the way she gets a job singing at a bar and meets Ben (Harvey Keitel) a younger man she gets involved with, but who proves abusive and a philanderer. Moving on to Tucson, Ariz., Alice finds work at a diner and immediately has awkward relationships with outspoken fellow waitress Flo (Diane Ladd) and the charming David (Kris Kristofferson), who romances her by taking out her son to his ranch. But as comfort broaches, Alice isn't sure that she's doing the right thing.
One of the great things about Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is how Scorsese and screenwriter Robert Getchell never mock the less fortunate. Often in films when characters are shown to be destitute, they are surrounded by white-trash characters who are flamboyant and one-dimensional. Alice has comic moments, but they are never at the expense of the characters. Like all of Scorsese's great films, there's a duality Scorsese's greatest influences are old Hollywood and the explosive realism of directors like John Cassavetes. Here, the collision between these sensibilities achieves a harmony; scenes pop to life. Scorsese makes these characters believable and fully dimensional while maintaining the framework of the previous generation's Woman's Picture, but also while also trying to modernize it. Ellen Burstyn gives a great performance one senses the love she has for her son, while also understanding the dual sense of loss and freedom that came after her husband's death. She wants to get by without needing a man, but she also likes being with men, and she expresses both sentiments without getting pigeonholed. Burstyn is well balanced by Alfred Lutter's Tommy, who's both intelligent and obnoxious. Tommy spends most of the film's second half with Jodie Foster's character Audrey, a tomboy daughter of a prostitute who's constantly trying to get Tommy drunk on ripple. The film is also chock full of notable small parts: Ladd is great as the mouthy Flo a far cry from the "kiss my grits" TV catchphrase as she plays off of Vic Tayback's Mel (both would re-appear in the TV series), while Keitel's performance is one of his best: With only a few minutes of screen-time, his Ben is frighteningly real. Though the film finds itself a little less sure-footed in its conclusion (it doesn't know what to make of either Alice's possible singing career or her romance with David), it's a wonderful character piece, showing that Martin Scorsese can do whatever he wants, and usually he does it well.
Warner's new DVD release of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with the original monaural audio on a DD 1.0 track. Extras consist of scene-specific commentary with credited commentators Martin Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn, and Kris Kristofferson and the uncredited Diane Ladd and runs for 53 minutes. Most revealing is when Scorsese says how he intentionally populated his support staff with women, such as editor Marcia Lucas and production designer Toby Carr Raeflson (both of whom were directors' wives at the time). Also included are the featurette "Second Chances" (20 min.) featuring Burstyn and Kristofferson's reminiscences, and the embarrassing theatrical trailer that does a very poor job of advertising the picture. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: The dog days of August may be upon us, but it was more than just fun and games at the weekend box-office. Fox's Alien vs. Predator, based on a video-game, took the top spot with an impressive $38.2 million break, easily besting its nearest competitor, Disney's The Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews, which took in $23 million over the weekend and $37.2 million since its debut last Wednesday. Arriving in fourth place was Warner's animated Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie, based a trading-card game, which drew $9.3 million. Critics were mixed-to-negative on Diaries, while PvA and Yu-Gi-Oh earned terrible reviews all around.
In continuing release, DreamWorks' Collateral starring Tom Cruise slipped from first to third place, adding $16 million to a $52.4 million gross, while Universal's The Bourne Supremacy starring Matt Damon is holding on to fifth place after one month with $139.4 million to its credit. After a strong start, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village is dropping quickly, taking just $7 million in its third session, although its now guaranteed triple-digits. Also underperforming is Paramount's The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington, which hasn't cracked $50 million after three frames. New to the list is Napoleon Dynamite from Fox Searchlight, which added screens and scraped up $1.7 million, with $15 million after ten weeks in limited release. And off to DVD prep is Warner's Catwoman starring Halle Berry, which failed to reach $40 million in wide release.
New films in cineplexes this Friday include The Exorcist: The Beginning and Without a Paddle. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Dawn Taylor has posted a sneak-preview of Warner's two-disc special edition of Goodfellas, while new spins this week from the rest of the team include Taking Lives, New York Minute, Stir of Echoes: Special Edition, Bon Voyage, Seeing Other People, and the remaining films in the new Martin Scorsese Signature Collection, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, After Hours, Mean Streets, and Who's That Knocking at My Door?. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page you can find even more DVD reviews with our handy search engine right above it.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 10 Aug. 2004
On the Street: The Warner waves just keep a' coming, this week with a slew of vintage horror that includes Tod Browning's infamous 1932 Freaks, along with The Bad Seed, Dead Ringer, and the double-feature Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned, and to cap it off is a new two-disc special edition of the 1987 goth fave The Lost Boys. Fresh thrills can be had with the second and final (for now) installment of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, out from Miramax, while Columbia TriStar curios include the urban horror Candyman and the German import Good Bye, Lenin!. New from Fox is Johnson Family Vacation and the third dip of the always-popular Predator, starring two action stars turned honest-to-goodness politicians. And rom-com fans will want to look for Paramount's formulaic-but-sweet The Prince & Me starring Julia Stiles. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 9 Aug. 2004
Disc of the Week: What was it, really, about Tod Browning's notorious Freaks that repulsed audiences so profoundly in 1932? In the U.S., civic groups attacked it as an example of Hollywood's depravity. England banned it altogether for thirty years. MGM's Louis B. Mayer removed his famous logo from all prints and the studio did its best to disown the film. It was savaged by shocked critics and, reportedly, audience members ran from the preview theaters screaming. Browning, who helped ignite the Universal horror-film craze by directing 1931's Dracula, had been hired by Irving Thalberg at glamour-house MGM to make a film even more horrifying. He succeeded, though not in ways that would be appreciated for more than a generation. Does its impact come just from, as horror author Stephen King and others have said, Browning going too far in casting his B-movie melodrama with authentic sideshow grotesques such as Johnny Eck (whose body cuts off at the ribcage), Prince Randian (born armless and legless, he ambulates by wriggling like a caterpillar), and an entire family of pinheads? Or is there something more shrewd in Freaks that tendrils into our brain's lizard-level?
The part of Freaks that gets under our skin isn't the plot, which fits on a Post-It Note. In a traveling circus, the statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), conspires with her lover, the thuggish strongman (Henry Victor), to marry lovelorn midget Hans (Harry Earles) and murder him slowly with poison to steal his fortune. Hans' fellow freaks, bonded in their "offend one of us, offend all of us" credo, take ghastly revenge on the would-be killer. Browning aligns us with two kindly normal performers, lovely Venus (Leila Hyams) and the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), who befriend the freaks as kindred spirits. There's also Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), who defends her "children" against a local who cries "monsters!" when he finds them playing in the woods. The film's second-most famous scene arrives when the outcasts offer to accept Hans' new bride with a wedding celebration and a passed-around goblet of wine. Their ritualistic chant "Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us, one of us" is both moving and deeply creepy. When the sacramental goblet reaches her, Cleopatra can't contain her revulsion. "Dirty, slimy freaks!" she screams, then humiliates tiny Hans in front of his peers with the strongman. Her fate is sealed. Thus comes the most famous, and controversial, scene. It's a climax that plays on our primordial fears of the Other, especially an Other that's armed and crawling, slithering, sloshing through rain and mud beneath circus wagons on a storm-wracked night.
That climax, and its macabre aftermath, are enough to make Freaks a visceral experience. But our sensitivities are already discomfited before that eerie moment. In his unadorned, plain-speaking directing, Browning implanted more than startling images of misshapen oddities. Thalberg, who championed Freaks as important, may have put his finger on more than a lurid ad campaign when he re-released it with poster taglines such as "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?" Browning, in showing the freaks as sympathetic people rather than inhuman monstrosities, dared to show the naked truth that they enjoy the same things we do: respect, affection, companionship, humor and sex. There's the proverbial elephant man in the living room no one talks about. The Skeleton Man is at the Bearded Lady's side when she delivers their baby girl. Daisy and Violet Hilton, pretty Siamese Twins conjoined at the hip, are each courted separately; Violet is engaged to be married, and already-married Daisy smiles blissfully as she feels the kiss Violet receives from the fiancé. (Consider the wedding-night implications of that for a moment.) Our imaginations stumble at the geek-love realities of "Half Boy" Johnny Eck, whose face is movie-star handsome, or sausage-like Prince Randian, who rolls and lights a cigarette with only his mouth (and who in real life was a husband and father). Browning implies nothing "deviant" here. The only unseemliness casual bedhopping for the fun of it involves the "normal" circus people. What MGM, the censors, and the public found revolting was not just Browning's documentary-like real horror-movie faces and bodies. It's the way he makes us look unblinking at these malformed individuals to see the common humanity we share with them, and they with us. They are us, Browning reveals with subcutaneous affect. Conversely, we are them, in all our fundamental qualities. Whether we like it or not, Freaks drills into our hindbrain and jolts our atavistic response to the not-normal, then forces us to confront our prejudices and feel something either revulsion or compassion, or surprise at the realization that those aren't mutually exclusive responses. Watching Freaks is a two-way communication. It's disturbing not just because of what's in it, but also because of what we bring to it.
Freaks is one of the most bizarre and unforgettable films to come out of a major Hollywood studio. It's now in the National Film Registry archive, but its volatile reception and subsequent near-burial kept it underground for decades. After an art-house and "midnight movie" revival in the 1960s, it appeared on VHS with poor picture and sound quality. Finally this 64-minute cult touchstone is restored in a first-rate DVD edition from Warner. The vivid, clean print shows only minor wear. Its definition and black-and-white contast are terrific. (The exception, restored from a dupey source, is the rarely-seen "happy ending" epilogue with Hans visited by his steadfast midget love, Frieda, with Venus and Phroso in Hans' mansion.) The DD 1.0 audio is quite good for this vintage. The disc's extras offer everything you've always wanted to know about Freaks but were too weirded out to ask. Detailing the production history in authoritative detail is a commentary track by David Skal, author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning. Skal returns, with sideshow historians and performers, in Freaks: Sideshow Cinema (1:03:20). This thorough documentary includes generous segments on each of Freaks' titular personalities, discussing their offscreen lives, experiences during production, and feelings about the film. Also here is the sermonic "Special Message" prologue (2:32) added for Thalberg's re-release. Three "alternate endings" are just recut versions of the epilogue, but they come with Skal's narration, and he reveals the intended fate of the villainous strongman a revenge so harrowing to Browning's studio bosses that they refused to sanction it. Freaks is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Tom Cruise extended his string of number-one openings at the box-office over the weekend with DreamWorks' Collateral the Michael Mann film, co-starring Jamie Foxx, took in $24.4 million, easily besting last week's winner, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, which tumbled from its $50 million debut to earn just $16.5 million in its second frame. However, folks at Buena Vista can't be disappointed with an $85.7 million 10-day total. Arriving in fifth place was Sony's Little Black Book starring Brittany Murphy, which took in $7 million. Critics lavished praise on Collateral, while Book earned mixed-to-negative reviews.
In continuing release, Universal's The Bourne Supremacy starring Matt Damon added $14.1 million to its $124.3 million purse, confirming blockbuster status after three sessions. However, Paramount's The Manchurian Candidate continues to underperform expectations, garnering just $10.8 million in its second weekend and $38.5 million overall. Fox's I, Robot starring Will Smith has wrapped up a solid month, now holding $126.7 million. And Sony's Spider-Man 2 may be slipping, but $354.5 million in six weeks isn't easy to ignore. Meanwhile, Warner's Catwoman starring Halle Berry looks de-clawed with only $36 million. And MGM's Thunderbirds has flown to the cheap screens after taking in less than $3 million its first weekend.
It's the dumping grounds of August, and new on screens this Wednesday is The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement starring Anne Hathaway, while Friday will see the premieres of Alien vs. Predator and the animated Yu-Gi-Oh!. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Damon Houx has posted a sneak-preview of Miramax's Kill Bill: Vol. 2, while new spins from the rest of the gang this week include Predator: Collector's Edition, The Lost Boys: Special Edition, The Prince & Me, Candyman: Special Edition, Good Bye, Lenin!, Double Trouble, Harum Scarum, The Bad Seed, Dead Ringer, Freaks, and the double-feature Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 3 Aug. 2004
On the Street: It's a big week for fans of bad Elvis movies Warner has six new spins on the street this week, including Double Trouble, Harum Scarum, It Happened at the World's Fair, Speedway, Spinout, and The Trouble with Girls. New from Columbia TriStar is Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 as well as the indie drama Tiptoes, while Viggo Mortensen can be seen in Buena Vista's horse-racing epic Hidalgo. Criterion collectors can pick up a new three-disc set of Jean Renoir films with Stage and Spectacle, while Fox has Anthony Quinn in one of his most famous roles, Zorba the Greek. And new items from the Disney vault include Darby O'Gill and the Little People, The Shaggy DA, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Unidentified Flying Oddball, and The Watcher in the Woods. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 2 Aug. 2004
Disc of the Week: Elvis Presley, cultural icon, exists in our collective consciousness as a handful of separate entities. There's Young Rockin' Elvis, who brought red-hot black blues to white America and shocked parents with his undulating hips. There's Post-Comeback Elvis, the favorite of impersonators, who did karate kicks to the strains of "Suspicious Minds." There's Crazy Drug-Using Elvis the Michael Jackson of his time living in the surreal grandeur of Graceland, subsisting on greasy fried food and pharmaceuticals. And, of course, Hollywood Elvis, who made a string of very successful films that he didn't really want to do featuring songs that he hated, but that made a huge pile of money for The King and considerably more money for his manager, Col. Tom Parker. From 1960 to 1969, following his much-publicized two-year stint in the U.S. Army, Elvis made a staggering 27 movies. Understandably, given that output, most of them were fairly formulaic outings with Elvis playing a womanizing bachelor in some sort of high-testosterone profession (racecar driver, pilot, water-ski instructor) who meets a gorgeous-but-curiously-unimpressed woman and, naturally, falls in love. These whisper-thin plots are wedged between a number of hastily written, generally forgettable songs, and Elvis often delivers his lines as if he just wants to get the take over quickly hoping, no doubt, to get back to his trailer for a cool blonde or a hot peanut butter-and-banana sandwich. Fairly typical of these films which, for good or bad, created a film canon all their own, that of the "Elvis Movie" is 1963's "It Happened at the World's Fair," with Elvis singin' and romancin' a sexy nurse as he babysits an adorable lost girl.
This time around, Elvis plays Mike Edwards, a hot-blooded, barnstormin' pilot who hopes to start his own small airline-for-hire with his partner, Danny Burke (Gary Lockwood). But after Danny loses all their money gambling and their plane is held for collateral, the two hitch a ride with a farmer (Kam Tong) and his cute-as-a-button, seven-year-old niece, Su Lin (Vicky Tiu) to Seattle in hopes of finding work. When the farmer's too busy to take Su Lin to the 1962 World's Fair, Mike's roped into escorting her a task he resents, because it cuts into his plans to hit on every halfway-attractive dame he encounters. But he makes do with just staring, without subtlety or charm, at the derriere of a woman standing in front of him on the monorail until Su Lin gets sick from eating too much junk food and Mike encounters the Fair's lovely nurse, Diane Warren (Joan O'Brien). When his creepy, stalkerish pickup technique doesn't immediately make Diane limp with lust, Mike becomes obsessed even going so far as to pay a little boy a quarter to kick him in the shins so he can get medical attention. However, his seduction attempts are slightly derailed when Su Lin's uncle disappears and Mike brings her home to stay with him until they find the errant farmer. In the tradition of all adorable film urchins, Su Lin does a little matchmaking between The King and the nurse but complications ensue when Diane calls child welfare about the situation and Danny gets them involved in a shady scheme to transport some goods to Canada.
Directed with cookie-cutter precision by Norman Taurog who helmed nine Elvis movies altogether It Happened at the World's Fair takes its sweet time getting to the point of the story, with Elvis not actually arriving at the Fair until over 30 minutes into the picture. Once there, the sights of the circa-1962 Space Needle (with the interior scenes shot on a Hollywood soundstage in front of a terrible, painted backdrop), the ultra-modern monorail (ditto on the interiors), and the exhibits at the futuristic "Century 21" exhibit are actually pretty darn cool. And there are a couple of trivial tidbits that make this otherwise forgettable Elvis Presley vehicle worth noting like a scene early in the film, where the wolfish Elvis tries to seduce a buxom young Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig by singing a truly awful Elvis-movie song ("Let loose let your hair down, honey/Unwind turn the lights down low/Relax let's uncork the stopper/Come to papa, come on, let's go"). Vicky Tiu, who played adorable little Su Lin, never made another film, but she did become First Lady of Hawaii when her husband, Ben Cayetano, was elected Governor in 1994. And it's impossible to overlook the appearance of a 12-year-old Kurt Russell as a boy who kicks Elvis in the shins, in a bizarre moment of career foreshadowing. Russell would, of course, go on to play The King in the 1979 TV movie that boosted the ex-kid actor's adult career. He'd also play an Elvis impersonator in the unfortunate 3,000 Miles to Graceland.
Warner's new DVD release of It Happened at the World's Fair offers a stunning anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the Panavision film, which looks incredibly crisp and bright with superbly saturated colors. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (in English or French) is just as good, with both cheesy dialogue and forgettable songs coming through clean and clear. A trailer gallery is included, and It Happened at the World's Fair is on the street tomorrow, along with five other Elvis Presley films from Warner Home Video, Double Trouble, Harum Scarum, Speedway, Spinout, and The Troble with Girls.
Box Office: For the second week in a row, a debut film broke the $50 million mark, but it wasn't the one most folks were expecting. Paramount's The Manchurian Candidate was tipped to take the top spot, but M. Night Shyamalan's The Village cleared $50.8 million for Buena Vista to win first place. Arriving in third was Candidate, which took in a respectable, if not blockbuster, $20.2 million. Also new was New Line's midlist pothead comedy Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, which stumbled in to seventh place with $5.1 million, while Universal's $58 million update of Thunderbirds was a white splotch on a Honda, taking in just $2.7 million and failing to crack the top ten. Critics praised Candidate and were kind to Kumar, while The Village earned mixed reviews and Thunderbirds was seasoned for a rotisserie.
In continuing release, Universal's The Bourne Supremacy had a solid second frame, holding down the number-two spot with $23.4 million over the past three days, pushing it toward triple digits. Sony's Spider-Man is still a hot ticket as well, rounding off the top five with $8.5 million on the weekend and $344.3 million to date. However, Warner's Catwoman isn't nearly as hot as its arachnid competitor, taking in just $6 million worth of kibble after a less-than-impressive debut, and now threatening to disappear with less than $30 million. Meanwhile, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is still playing, now with $109.4 million after six sessions. And off to DVD prep is another disappointment for Buena Vista this year, King Arthur, which failed to reach its blockbuster hype and now is headed for the cheap screens with less than $50 million.
New films on marquees this Friday include Collateral starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, and Little Black Book with Brittany Murphy. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne has posted a sneak-preview of Criterion's Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir, while new reviews from the rest of the gang this week include 13 Going on 30, Hidalgo, The Reckoning, Tiptoes, Spinout, Speedway, It Happened at the World's Fair, and The Trouble with Girls. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.