Wednesday, September 07, 2005

It Came From Netflix! Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Back before HBO and Showtime, when cable TV was just in its infancy, there was a local service in the Los Angeles area called the Z Channel. Because the channel serviced the Hollywood area, it was immensely influential in the industry.

This documentary is both a history of the service and a biography of Jerry Harvey, the channel’s programmer. Harvey was a true film fanatic, literally obsessed with movies, and his passion for good films of all stripes made the Z Channel a connoisseur’s dream, pioneering not only an immensely wide selection of films, both foreign and domestic, classics, recent blockbusters, skin flicks (being ahead of the curve on the sort of movie “Cinemax Late Night” made famous), horror movies, everything, from the most famous to the incredibly obscure. Frankly, it sounds like it was a damn fine service.

Aside from the boggling array of movies—we see some brief glimpses of the line-ups, and it was amazing—the Channel was also way ahead of the curve on many issues we take for granted, showing films uncut, uninterrupted, letterboxed and even featuring restored versions of films that had been reedited prior to release.

It must be remembered—as weird as it will sound to my younger readers (both of them)—that back in the day once a movie left the theaters you never got to see unedited version of it. Movies shown on broadcast TV were almost always cut for time and/or content, and there was no other mechanism for seeing them, no cable, no videocassettes, nothing. If you lived in a big city there were revival theaters, but that was it. The very idea of seeing unedited movies in your home was a huge selling point for videocassettes back when they began selling movies that way.

The film is about film lovers made for film lovers, and many famous people do interviews on the Channel and Harvey, including Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, the inevitable Quentin Tarantino and James Woods, who’s career was catapulted when Z Channel showcased Oliver Stone’s El Salvador after it had quickly bombed in theaters. The screenings allowed members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts to see it, and Woods subsequently won the Best Actor Oscar for the film, largely because of these showings.

The documentary is generous with clips from many films, especially the ones that Z Channel pretty much solely brought before the public, such as the reconstructed director’s cuts of Heaven’s Gate and Once Upon a Time in America, which had been butchered by the studios. One way you know the movie is working is that it makes you want to track down the films we see clips of.

The Channel was also famous for its programming magazine, a deluxe monthly periodical featuring occasionally acerbic critical reviews and essays that apparently were compulsively readable.

Of course, eventually such an enterprise had to fall to national competitors, but sadly the tale is darker than that. Jerry Harvey ended up murdering his wife, and then killing himself. Most of the interview subjects knew Harvey and seem reluctant to pass judgment on him—mental problems ran in the family, and his sister had committed suicide some years earlier—but I must admit, the fact that he killed his spouse kind of reduced any sympathy I might have had for him.

Still, a very good documentary. DVD and cable have really been a boon to the form, and given that almost anything can be the subject of a good documentary if its done right, hopefully more people will start getting into them.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

It Came from Netflix: Oasis of the Zombies

I seem to have made the fatal mistake of waiting a few days before writing up Oasis of the Zombies. I have a good excuse for this, true: watching the film caused my boredom circuits to overload and short out my brain. Luckily, my brain wasn’t really needed for the rest of the picture anyway. However, if the description below sounds vague, well, you try watching that crapfest.

Two girls are in the desert, and find an oasis and walk around. Shockingly for a Euro zombie movie, much less a Euro zombie movie directed by Jess Franco (the fact that the film’s ‘direction’ consists mainly of zooming in and out of stuff about a thousand times was kind of a giveaway), the girls don’t get naked. There are bits of old war stuff scattered around, some with swastikas on them, and then zombies come out and kill the girls. Who, in case I hadn’t mentioned it, had not prior to their deaths gotten naked.


Uhm, then there was this Guy. He meets up with another guy, about a treasure map or something, and kills the second guy and takes the map. Or whatever it is. Anyway, Dead Guy has a son in college, and the son is Our Hero, or the closest thing to it. Hero Guy—notable mostly for his curly locks—has his own Scooby Gang, consisting of Girl, Muslim Guy and Guy Who Looks Like Scott Hamilton.*

[*Not the skater, Scott Hamilton; I mean Scott “Five Plates” Hamilton, of Stomp Tokyo—admittedly, this means that the phrase ‘Guy Who Looks Like Scott Hamilton’ might not be an entirely useful frame of reference to most people.]

Hero Guy, uh, somehow ends up with his father’s journal, or…something…and the next like half hour is a flashback about Dead Guy commanding some troops fighting some Nazis in the desert, and everybody was killed following much loud boredom, except for Dad Guy (I mean, in the flashback he’s not really Dead Guy yet), who wonders off wounded and is found by a stereotypical Arab dude who takes him home—I guess—and Dad Guy gets better and falls in love with Arab Dude’s daughter and they do the nasty—offscreen though—and then Dad Guy…went away, I think. Maybe because of the war? I don’t remember. But…that was the story of Hero Guy’s mom, which I guess he didn’t know. And Hero Guy eventually meets his grandfather, although I don’t remember what that had to do with anything.

Oh, and Guy Who Killed Dead Guy goes for the treasure, and zombies kill all his henchman, but only bite him, and he gets away, but the Scooby Gang finds him before he dies and I can’t remember how that tied into anything else. Also, the Scooby Gang meets Another Group, including Saucy Blond Girl, who flirts with Guy Who Looks Like Scott Hamilton.

So the Scooby Gang goes into the desert to look for the treasure—which is in the oasis and protected by the zombies, or some damn thing, in case I forget to mention it—and the Other Gang is there, but some of them are dead, having been attacked I guess by the zombies, only we didn’t see that, so I’m not really sure, but I think so. Survivors Blond Girl and Photography Guy mention leaving, but the Scooby Gang doesn’t want to, so the survivors of the zombie attack shrug and decide to stick around too. (!!!)

Blond Girl and Guy Who Looks Like Scott Hamilton have sex, because it was against the law to make a movie like this in Europe and not show at least some breasts, and they are all in love and stuff, so we knew they’d be killed. And the zombies come out that night—did I mention the zombies only come out at night, because the sun ill effects them, but for some reason the zombies only come out about ten minutes before dawn each time they attack, like how vampire hunters in movies always wait until half an hour before nightfall to go to the vampires house?—and kill everybody except Hero Guy and Girl, who know the zombies are afraid of fire (we were told that, I think) and made a three inch tall circle of fire by pouring gas into the sand and lighting it, which would also work on Octoman, and Hero Guy wields a half-hearted torch, at the touch of which the zombies go up like rice paper, being about the lamest zombies I’ve ever seen.

In any case, the only people left alive are Hero Guy and Girl, and maybe they get the treasure, or they leave without it, or something. The end.

Anyway, I meant to warn Steve over at the zombie-centric Gangrene Widescreen about the film, but he heard about me seeing it, and wrote to offer his condolences, since he had reviewed the film for his previous site, which disappeared into the Internet ether and took all the content with it. (Which I’m not blaming on his having reviewed Oasis of the Zombie, but I wouldn’t be surprised were there a connection.) Anyway, maybe he’ll re-review it. I wouldn’t wish it on him, but I’d suck on his and his partner Pam’s pain like sweet, sweet candy were they to choose to.

Anyway, when Steve and I meet in person one of these days, having both having seen Oasis of the Zombies and all, we’ll recognize that haunted look in each other’s eyes and give each other a little nod that only people who’ve sat through this movie would understand.

It Came from the Multiplex: Transporter 2

I’ve often stated my antipathy for the modern, elephantine, MTV-directing styled action film. I hope to see the breed retrench a bit and come to reflect more of a ‘70s-type low key idea of action. Luckily, there are signs of this happening to some extent, such as John Singleton’s Shaft and the Bourne films. Still, it’s been a year or two since I went to see a really stupid, inane, overblown action flick. So I thought I’d take a flyer on The Transporter 2.

I’d seen the first Transporter movie, and didn’t remember much about it—but then, it’s the sort of film designed to be that way—except for a neat fight where the hero sloshed a lot of oil all over and slip around beating up like a dozen guys. Past that, and knowing that he illegally ‘transported’ things for a living, I can’t say much stuck with me.

The opening of the sequel, oddly enough, seems ripped off from Man on Fire, only with Jason Statham as a gruff ex-special forces guy driving around a young boy rather than Denzel Washington’s gruff ex-special forces guy driving around a slightly older Dakota Fanning. As in that film, the kid is kidnapped, and the hero goes to get her back. (Actually, Man on Fire goes in a slightly different direction than that, but the earlier parts of both films remain highly similar.)

The kidnapping turns out to be but part of an epically moronic and ridiculous scheme to assassinate a zillion guys, and had the film not simply ignored it’s own set-up when it came time to end the movie, it would have logically featured the deaths of thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands or even more. But…it didn’t so never mind.

Of course, nobody expects logic in a film like this, and here such viewer expectations are completely met. The villains are cartoonishly violent, of course, and the film’s Hot Chick is a painfully thin model in underwear—and by that I mean that pretty much what she wears throughout the entire movie—who is constantly emptying her two laser-sighted machine pistols into anything that moves.

[On a side note, it’s obvious that this is a fetish of the director, Luc Besson. For instance, his movie Fifth Element featured a similarly wafer thin Milla Jovovich (also Besson's wife), who like the nearly naked woman here, spent much of the film wearing but a few straps that covered only the most essential portions of her body.

The reason I note this is that Besson also directed The Professional, in which an eleven year-old Natalie Portman spent some part of the movie wearing a wife-beater T-shirt with her nipples noticeably protruding. I was more than a little weirded out by that at the time, and now that I’ve noticed Besson’s predilection for women with exaggeratedly ‘girlish,’ nearly breastless figures…well, I’m not any less discomforted, let’s put it that way.]

The fight scenes are pretty good, along the lines of b-level Jackie Chan stuff. One fight takes place in a plane that is tumbling around in the air, and the camera follows the fighters as they roll up the walls and floor and ceiling of the plane, an obvious nod to the dance scene in Royal Wedding where the great Fred Astaire similarly appeared to defy gravity. The fight’s really not that exciting, but I found the conceit amusing. There is a better one where the hero uses a firehouse as an all-purpose ass-beating implement, though.

Oddly, there’s not a whole lot of car stuff in the film—some, but not as much as you’d expect in a film based around an expert driver. Of the stunts we do see, they are so exaggerated that you kind of laugh rather than gasp. Which, admittedly, might have been the goal. Meanwhile, the hero’s bulletproof automobile proves laughably impervious to harm. The molecularly bonded KITT on Knight Rider took more damage than this thing.

An OK piffle, but thank goodness it only lasted 90 minutes.

This week on DVD (09/06/05)...

Lots of great stuff today, especially for fans of classic movies. Prices are rough estimates based on the listings at Internet dealers. See for specifics on any title.

The DVD of the week is the Bela Lugosi Collection, gathering five movies (four of which co-star Boris Karloff) into one economical package. The set collects Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Raven, Black Friday and The Invisible Ray. The set is available for around an eye-popping $20.

Universal is also today releasing another two-disc set of EIGHT (!) Hammer Horror films, including some never even available on VHS before. The titles, including some really great movies, include Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Paranoiac, Kiss of the Vampire, Nightmare, Night Creatures and The Evil of Frankenstein.

Greta Garbo fans are treated to a 10 (!) disc set featuring many classics, including Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, Camille, Flesh & the Devil, Grand Hotel, the Great Garbo Documentary, Mata Hari, Mysterious Lady, TheTemptress, Ninotchka and Queen Christina. The set can be found for around $70.

TV shows this week (code key: ‘S’ equals ‘season; S3 being Season 3, etc.) 21 Jump Street S3, Buffalo Bill S1 & 2, Charmed S2, Degrassi Junior High S3, Doctor Who episodes The Mind Robbers (Troughton) and The Horror of Fang Rock (Baker), Dougie Houser MD S2, The Fat Albert Halloween Special, Lost S1, MacGyver S3, Millennium S3, Rocky & Bullwinkle S3, Space Above & Beyond Complete Series.

Speaking of TV productions, several BBC mini-series adaptations of the novels of Charles Dickens are out today, many of which were seen here on Masterpiece Theater. These features terrific casts of British actors, including Denham Eliot and Paul Scofield. Titles include Bleak House (still a powerful satire/exposé of the legal profession), Great Expectations, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend. All are also available in a box collection (The Charles Dickens Collection), featuring over thirty hours (!) of material, which you can get for a fabulous $45.

Several classic films are being reissued today in special collector’s two-disc sets. These include such essential titles as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sting, The Deer Hunter and Toy Story.

Fans of ‘80s horror might enjoy the double release of The Boogeyman and The Return of the Boogyman. If I remember correctly, the sequel is about 40% made up of footage from the earlier movie. Still, two movies for $10.

The highly pointless 1962 remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is out today, available for around $10-12.

Dead & Breakfast is a zombie horror/comedy featuring David Carradine and featuring two separate commentary tracks. It’s being put out by Anchor Bay, so that’s a good sign. Around $12-14.

The Doctor and the Devils is based on the real life Burke & Hare British graverobbing scandal of the 1800s. The stellar cast features Jonathon Price, Julian Sands, Timothy Dalton and Patrick Stewart. The box set Back from the Grave mentioned below include The Flesh and the Fiends, another film based on the events and starring Peter Cushing.

Serial buffs will rejoice to hear that the classic Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is out in a nifty looking five disc set, for around $20. The set features a zillion extras, including episodes of a Flash Gordon TV show and much other stuff.

Guide for the Married Man, while not a great movie, features an extraordinary cast of ‘60s comedians and comic actors: Walter Matthau, Robert Morse, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Joey Bishop, Sid Caesar, Art Carney, Phil Silvers and Jayne Mansfield.

Gunslinger’s Revenge is a 2005 “neo-Spaghetti Western” starring David Bowie (!) and Harvey Keitel.

The classic 1961 ghost movie The Innocents is out for around $10.

The classic Preston Sturges comedy The Miracle of Morgan Creek is out, circa $10.

Image is tossing together ‘sets’ bundling previously available DVDs. Still, if you hadn’t previously bought any of the films (which lets me out, of course), the sets are a great deal, being available for about $15-20 a pop. Many of the discs also feature extensive extras like commentaries, alternate versions of the film, etc.

Back From the Grave” features The Flesh and the Fiends with Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance, and featuring both the UK and US versions of the movie (see the entry on The Doctor and the Devils above); Graveyard of Horror and Raiders of the Living Dead. The Raiders disc DOES contain all three versions of the movie, as explicated in my Jabootu review.

The Beast Box features The Beach Girls and the Monster, Bride of the Gorilla and Bela Lugosi Meets a Boston Gorilla.

The Blood Thirsty Collection features Horror of the Blood Monsters, Doctor Dracula and Blood Drinkers.

The Box of Blood features Bloody Pit of Horror, Carnival of Blood, Curse of the Headless Horseman, Blood Suckers and Blood Thirst. Three discs, around $30.

The Freak Show Box features Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, She Freak, Blood Freak and Basket Case. About $30.

The Herschell Gordon Lewis Collection collects The Gruesome Twosome, The Wizard of Gore, She-Devils on Whells, The Gore Gore Girls, A Taste of Blood
and Something Weird. About $30.