Sunday, August 29, 2010

As a kid I marveled at the concept that someone well known or famous came from the same town or area in which I lived.

Although I was born in Roswell New Mexico, I never considered it my hometown. As a service kid, I attended kindergarten, first and second grade in Springfield, Mass., third grade in Montgomery, Al., part of fourth in Rantoul, Ill., the second half of fourth and the first half of fifth in Hadley, Mass., the second half of fifth in Greenville, Calif. and my sixth, seventh and apart of eighth grades in the Department of Defense schools on Okinawa.

Springfield was always where I considered home and if someone asked what was my hometown, Springfield was my response.

Although I spent my high school and college years living in Granby, Mass., Springfield is my hometown.

When I became interested in film during junior high school, I was very intrigued to discover the show business connections to the area and Springfield. Among those was Eleanor Powell, who was born and raised in the city.

Now I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but there are some performers who are just electric on screen. I’m a fan of Fred Astaire, for instance and I love those early 1930s Warner Brothers musicals with the over-the-top numbers of Busby Berkley.

What bowled me over with Powell was that she danced like no other woman on the screen at the time. She had a kind of athleticism the other female dancers lacked. Strikingly attractive, she made what she did looked so easy and effortless, while of course anyone watching her perform would know it was the product of grueling work.

Powell’s time of the screen was relatively short, compared to some of her contemporaries. She basically retired from film in 1944 while still a young woman.

She does have fans today, thanks to her films being broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. If you’ve not seen one of her films, do yourself a favorite and haunt the TCM Web site to see when one will be on.

Here is the official Web site for Powell

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I really liked this Korean cultural mash-up.

I've not posted DVD reviews for a while so here are some of the films I've recently seen:

How to Make Love to a Woman

I must admit a grudging respect for some old school exploitation values exhibited in this new sexually tinged romantic comedy.

First, the title sounds like something one of the old road show producers would have brought 60 years ago from one theater to another. There was once a kind of movie that low budget producers made and showed to men-only and women-only audiences discussing intimate subjects that invariably included a live lecture from a "hygiene" expert!

Second, the design of the cover art suggests the film might be part of the "American Pie" series. It's not. Deception was part of the exploitation experience.

Third, while one might expect there would be some nudity in the film, there isn't any. Explicit language, yes, nudity, no. "Bait and switch" is also a fine tradition of the exploitation film.

Lastly the inclusion of adult film legend Jenna Jameson in the cast puts forth the promise of some hotsy-totsy action, but guess what? Jameson's cameo role is certainly demure and brief.

Having noted all that, "How to Make Love to a Woman" isn't a bad little comedy that plays on basic miscommunication between two people who love one another, but it's not a truly notable film at all.

Josh Meyers of "Mad TV" is a record company executive who realizes he isn't much of a lover, even though he cares deeply for his girlfriend. He goes on quest to improve his skills, but hits a roadblock when his bumbling and ego causes her to consider accepting a job offer in another city.

There are some talented character actors in the cast, including Ken Jeong and James Hong, who brought some additional mirth to the proceedings and Meyers is fine as the lead as is Krysten Ritter as his girlfriend.

There is nothing particularly outstanding or memorable, though, about the film and that's the problem.

The DVD extras include the usual making of feature in which the producers actually describe just how difficult it is to make a film in just 19 days.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

I've sung the praises of Asian films before in this column and this 2008 Korean "western" set in Manchuria in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation would be a great introduction for a newcomer.

What always fascinates me is how Asian filmmakers -- whether they are Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Indonesian -- have pushed their own history, culture and attitudes through a filter of film grammar, technology and iconography that is largely American. The results are films that look familiar in some ways but take viewers along paths they didn't expect. As a film fan, that's what I live for.

In this case, Korean director and writer Jee-woon Kim has clearly been influenced by westerns in general, but especially by Sergio Leone's classic western, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," which in turn was the great Italian director's reimagining of American westerns.

Kang-ho Song is "the Weird," a Korean outlaw who steals a treasure map that is the object of desire by a Chinese crime lord as well as the Japanese occupying forces. Byung-hun Lee is "the Bad," a skilled assassin who understands the value of the map and seeks to have it for himself. Woo-sung Jung is "the Good," a no-nonsense bounty hunter who dresses like a cowboy and seems to have patterned himself after Gary Cooper.

The director knows how to stage great action sequences -- from an outstanding train robbery to some spectacular fights -- but he also infuses the film with a uniquely Asian perspective. The Korean outlaw longs to return home, now occupied by a brutal Japanese regime. The cultural and historical differences of Asian people come into play in this film.

Jee-woon Kim also understands how to use humor and sentimentality to sustain the viewer's interest.

I really liked this film and think you might as well if you can suspend your disbelief a bit -- I can't quite believe Manchuria was as much as like the wild west as it was portrayed -- and give the subtitles a chance. I always opt for subtitles, as I really want to hear the performances of the actors even if I don't understand the language.

The Dungeon Masters

I'm not much a game player, so if I can't finish a game of Monopoly one can see that I would never be able to immerse myself in video games or in the game featured in this documentary, Dungeons & Dragons.

There are a lot of people out there, who do plunge into playing a game and it becomes more than a recreation, but a lifestyle for them. This new film looks at three people who devoted a substantial part of their lives not just playing the game but being a game master and organizing a game.

While fictional movies and documentaries about fanboys and their pursuits is nothing new -- "Trekkies" probably invented the genre -- director Kevin McAlester manages to avoid clich s. He doesn't laugh at his subjects. He presents their lifestyles and allows the audience to react.

McAlester follows three very different people: Richard, a married sanitation worker and member of the Air Force Reserve; Scott, a married apartment building manager and struggling writer; and Elizabeth, a single woman trying to find employment.

McAlester shows that in each case the role of game master gives these people a sense of control over some part of their lives. Scott is clearly very smart, but he seems incapable of applying himself to anything meaningful. Elizabeth is searching for a solid relationship as well as a job. Richard, who seems to have a very full life, obviously yearns for something dramatic.

While these three people may dress in costume and talk about elves, trolls and dragons, at the core they are no different than anyone else who is a fan of something. Is the person who regularly wears shirts showing his or her allegiance to a sports team and can reel off facts, stats and analysis of the latest game no less a geek than these three?

Considering that I have spent much time with fanboys -- I'm one myself -- I think this film is an insightful look at how people can give into a hobby to the point of near obsession.

The extras include some great outtakes and a series of "not outtakes, exactly," that have some interviews with folks who make our three subjects look pretty normal -- whatever that means.

Don't Look Up

At last, a DVD horror film release that isn't some lame low budget vampire film. "Don't Look Up" is a genuinely creepy film with some good shocks.

Reshad Strik stars as a film director named Marcus. He's going through some personal and professional hard times -- his girl friend is dying of cancer and he walked off the set of his second movie -- when he receives an offer to film a script based on a lost movie.

A Hungarian director -- look for director Eli Roth in a cameo -- disappeared in 1928 when he attempted to shoot a film based on a medieval legend about a village doomed by a supernatural spirit. Marcus wants to make his version of the same story in the very studio his counterpart used more than 80 years ago.

Anyone who has seen any horror movies knows this can't be a good idea. For Marcus, the extra wrinkle in the story is that he has psychic abilities and can "see" the events that took place years previous.

It's not too long before the spirit makes herself known and members of the crew start dropping and she has some plans for Marcus.

The shocks include far more than the standard gory deaths. Director Fruit Chan, a Hong Kong filmmaker known for a horror film called "Gaau ji (Dumplings)," makes sure not only are his actors allowed to build a characterization, but also to vary the chills.

One of the most disturbing moments in the film for me was a scene in which the director and his producer -- played with an oily charm by Henry Thomas -- watch the dailies from the first day. Their footage contains that shot 80 years earlier, long thought lost. It's a subtle but effective moment.

This is the kind of horror film I like: original, unpredictable and free of dumb vampires!

The extras include the standard interviews and behind the scenes footage.

"Shinjuku Incident" may certainly be a disappointment to Jackie Chan fans who expect silly comedy and stunt-filled action. Instead, they are going to find a very serious film dealing with illegal immigration and organized crime.

In an interview included in the DVD's extras, Chan said he would like to extend his career as an actor and director, like Clint Eastwood. To do so, he has to take on more dramatic roles and clearly this is a step in that direction.

With the success of the re-make of "The Karate Kid," American audiences are starting to see this new Jackie Chan, but he has been around for awhile -- in his Chinese movies.

Chan tried a straight drama in his 1993 film "Crime Story," and returned to it with his performance as a failed alcoholic cop in "New Police Story." His burglar character from "Rob-B-Hood," was also a departure from his standard good guy parts.

In his recent American films he has reverted to his standard screen persona, such as in "The Spy Next Door." The sad thing is his more interesting films, such as "New Police Story" and "The Myth" haven't received any theatrical release here though they eventually come out on home video.

If you're a fan of Chinese cinema or of Chan, I recommend adding those two productions to your Netflix list.

"Shinjuku Incident" tells the story of Nick, a Chinese tractor mechanic who illegally comes to Japan to search for his girlfriend, Xiu Xiu, years after she immigrates to find fame and fortune. Although at age 56, Chan is a tad too old for this role, he delivers a moving under-stated performance as a man who is attempting to do the right thing, but whose choices are limited.

Once in Japan, Nick encounters prejudice from the Japanese plus the challenges that come from being an illegal alien. Nick lives on the streets until he meets a friend from back home, Joe, who introduces him to a group of a largely Chinese illegals all living in a communal home.

Struggling to find any meaningful work, while working in a sewer he rescues the life of a sympathetic police officer. He also sees his one-time girlfriend, now the wife of a powerful Japanese mobster, Eguchi.

Although resistant at first to do anything against the law, Nick eventually begins stealing and scamming. When he saves Eguchi's life, he's given the crime territory of the would-be assassin. Eguchi is not being generous. He plans to use Nick and his Chinese gang as pawns in his game to take over leadership of the mob.

Director Derek Yee handles this gritty drama pretty well, although there are moments in which the passing of time is not presented well and creates a little confusion.

For instance, the audience has no idea Xiu Xiu has been gone as long has she has before Nick begins his search for her and until we see her young daughter, who is about six or seven years old.

Overall, though, this is an above average crime drama that plays out in the same vein as the classic gangster films from the 1930s such as "Public Enemy" or "Little Caesar."

One note of caution: there are several moments of graphic violence that are also very uncharacteristic for previous Jackie Chan films.

And Chan demonstrates that he not only has a place in cinema history as one of world's best action stars, but also as an effective dramatic performer.


When I was teaching a film class at Western New England College, I frequently showed one of the worst movies I had in my collection: an obscurity called "Terror in the Amazon."

I showed that film to illustrate what constitutes good direction. I learned my students couldn't really tell what good direction is like because they didn't have a benchmark of really terrible direction for comparison.

"Terror in the Amazon" provided that. It's truly incompetent.

The difference a director makes to a film can be crucial and that's the problem with "Stolen," a murder mystery that takes place over the course of 50 years.

"Stolen" features a pretty intriguing script. John Hamm plays a present day cop who is still grieving for the disappearance of his son eight years ago. He suspects an incarcerated child killer, but can't prove it.

His obsession with solving the case increases when a construction crew discovers the corpse of a young boy who had been murdered about 50 years ago. Through flashbacks we learn of the boy's story.

While I thought Glen Taranto's script had much merit, director Anders Anderson made a bit of a mess of it. An average episode of "Criminal Minds," has a better use of production value and a closer attention to detail.

Because this is partly a period film, one can't help but notice the haircuts and clothing are too far off, something a good director would notice. The use of a roadside diner supposedly a busy location is on a dirt road. Huh?

There is never a true sense of location established or that these events are actually taking place in a "real" place.

The film has a fine cast, but too many characters have too little to do and have been given throwaway roles, such as the lovely Morena Baccarin whose talents are completely wasted.

This is Anderson's first film and he has a lot to learn.

While flawed, mystery fans might find some interest in "Stolen."

Left Bank

This horror movie from Belgium came with some high recommendations and I was expecting a lot. While it also has many good points, watching it was fairly irritating.

Marie is a young runner who is headed for great things when she contracts an unknown ailment. Her doctor recommends a month's worth of rest and Marie decides to move in with her new boyfriend.

Slowly but surely she discovers the apartment building in which they live on the left bank of the river in Antwerp has a disturbing history. It is supposedly built on the site of literally a hole to Hell and the place where generations of devil worshippers have conducted ceremonies.

Now Marie, in the worst traditions of the horror film protagonist, sticks around even as she realizes that things are not what they seem. A sensible person would have tried to escape well before she does.

That's where this film is frustrating. There are some good performances and some good ideas that hole in the basement is pretty damn creepy but the film is agonizingly slow. The writer and director apparently want to stick with the conventions of the genre rather than do something new.

This film is unrated and while the violence isn't explicit, there are a number of sex scenes and ones with nudity that are fairly revealing. While low-budget director Fred Olen Ray once accurately said that "nudity is the cheapest special effect," these scenes certainly don't make "Left Bank" a better story.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, August 09, 2010

Year in Fear: Take Two

A newly minted friend on Facebook posted a “Year in Fear,” the calendar for horror fans that I conceived and which featured artwork from my friend Steve Bissette.

I realize I’ve blogged about this doomed project before in 2008, but this posting is more detailed. I’m in a revelatory mood.

I split an advance of $1,250 with Steve from Tundra Publishing – the now legendary experiment in something to do with creator rights publishing – and thought at the time that were going to make big money.

How could we go wrong? Every way possible.

The tale of the “Year in Fear” should be one taught to anyone entering into a business or to any creative type dreaming of a new project.

In 1988, I met Steve Bissette at a party conducted by a mutual friend. Steve is one of most charming guys you could meet and we quickly struck up a friendship. About a year, year and a half later I came up with the idea of a calendar for horror fans and asked Steve if he would like to come aboard. He said yes and when he was invited to be one of the first creators invited into the Tundra inner circle by Kevin Eastman, the calendar was going to become a reality.

I had known Peter Laird, half of the Ninja Turtle creative team since my days at UMass. We were never friends, but fellow comic book fans at a time when we sort of stuck out like sore thumbs.

I had staged the first museum exhibition of the Mirage Studio crew at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke where I worked. I think, without digging through old papers, that was 1987.

Anyway, I was known a bit by both Kevin and Peter.

Mark Martin, a fabulous designer and artist with whom I subsequently became friends for 20 years, designed the calendar. Mark and I no longer talk – I don’t why, ask him – but I have to give him his due. He designed a great looking portfolio for Steve’s work.

But it was a crappy calendar. More on that in a minute.

By the way, what made all of this more painful was a friend at the time was trying to do his own calendar that was surprisingly similar to mine that was going to be published by Peter laird. I remember him telling me something along the lines of “It’s not personal. It’s business.

The thing was over-sized and was in black, white and blue. I thought that all we had to do was solicit it through the comic book distributors and the fans would grab it.

After all Steve was and still is a pretty hot commodity.

Lesson number one: don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.

This was the early days still of comic fandom and frankly what people bought was the ancillary items – they didn’t exist as they do today. They bought comic books. A calendar was a fairly foreign item in shops in 1990 and 1991.

We solicited orders in the summer – just in time for the fall calendar season and got back orders for 125.

There were 1,000 of these in the Tundra warehouse.

Well, Tundra was full of cousins, brothers-in-law and long-time friends of Kevin’s and some of them formed a brain trust. I was on their shit list as I had actually come up with a promotion item to give away to stores that the fans did want – a shot glass for Steve’s “Taboo Especial.” We made a profit on a give-away and I was toast. I had shown up these guys.

One of them said not to worry; he could get Costco to buy the entire stock. He had connections. He didn’t sell any.

Lesson two: Don’t trust someone’s brother-in-law.

So then I took it upon myself to get them sold. I spoke with a regional card shop chain whose management couldn’t understand the idea behind the calendar and then I decided to go large and went to Atlantic City to the open vendor day at Spencer’s Gifts.

The buyer was a great guy who had gone to college in Springfield and who patiently explained to me just why this product was nearly unsellable. First, I was too late. Calendars are ordered in the spring of the year. Second, it was too big. Third, where was the hole?

The hole? On crap, we don’t have a hole so it could be hung in the store and hung by the customer.

We had done EVERYTHING wrong.

Lesson three and the most important one of all: do your homework.

I went home only to hear the Tundra braintrust wanted us to autograph the stock so they could be used as give-aways for Tundra UK. Steve and I dutifully signed hundreds of them.

Then we discovered they were going to be tossed. We rescued a bunch.

We had a couple of months left, so I worked out a fulfillment deal with Fangoria magazine. They ran an ad for the things and we spilt the money.

After that we were stuck with a bunch of them. They sat in our basements.

Soon after, I had bought, along with Patrick Duquette, the animation magazine Animato! That’s a cautionary tale as well, which I’ll also tell one day.

We started working conventions ands eventually Patrick lost a taste for it, so I’d split a table with Steve. We realized of we cut the calendar bits of the plates; we would have nifty little prints. We sold them for $3 with Steve’s autograph and that is how we made money on our calendars.

Of course we pissed every dollar we made at shows by buying other things at shows.

I still have a few of them in my basement. I keep one at my office at work as a reminder of the importance of market research before launching a product.

Postscript: You know I was trying to find a graphic for this posting and I realized that some things I could have scanned, I’ve thrown out. Tundra was a bad very scene and sometimes I just want to purge.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs