DVD Video Reviews Part 2 - December 2001

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Carnival of Souls (1987)

I'd heard about this cult movie for a long time. Perhaps it comes under that definition of something you've built up expectations about over time and when you finally experience it you find it a let-down. Not that I feel I wasted my time; I didn't, however, view all of the extras or I probably wouldn't be able to say that. This is a case of providing just a little more material than the average person would want to see. But then I suppose the average movie viewer doesn't seek out cult films like this one.

The history of this feature is unusual to say the least. The Centron Corporation in Lawrence, Kansas, was a successful producer of industrial and classroom films, and this was the only theatrical entertainment feature they ever made. They used some of the same actors and locations they employed in their classroom shorts on hygiene, dating etc. Their budget was modest but director Harvey's goals were not: he wanted his macabre black & white movie to "have the look of a Bergman and the feel off a Cocteau." The cinematography is much more artistic than a typical film of this sort and the acting is fairly professional. There are some problems with syncing of dialog, and at the very end someone who's supposed to be dead flutters an eyelid noticeably, but generally the quality is quite high. With Criterion's careful reissue efforts the image and sound must certainly be better than the bootlegged copies of this that were taped from late nite TV. Another unusual element in the story of the heroine of the film is that she is a church organist. Some opening scenes were shot in a pipe organ factory, prompting some dramatic designs with the pipes. Then the entire film score is spooky-sounding pipe organ. This makes a good connection with the story, but it kept reminding me of the music to the golden age radio program The Shadow.

The disturbing apparition the organist keeps seeing leads her to an abandoned amusement park near Salt Lake City - an actual place used with eerie effect in the film. There's a nice plot twist at the end in spite of the probability that most of us saw it coming. (If I just ruined it for you, sorry.) My partiality to films that are clever and worth watching in spite of lacking multi-million-dollar budgets kept up my interest throughout Carnival of Souls, but not for all those extras thank you. This all got me thinking about doing a DVD release of the longest film I completed as an experimental filmmaker - 23 minutes. Think about 3 1/2 hours of extras will be enough? I still have some of the props and I could interview some people who were at the premiere in l967...

- John Sunier

Billy Liar (1963)

Billy lives at home with his parents and his grandmother in England and, apart from some laziness, seems like a normal fellow. Normal except for his extreme propensity for lying and fantasizing (daydreaming). If he is not some "great" war hero, then he is leader of a country. Despite the fact that he holds a job and seems to be able to live a usual life, he manages to get himself engaged to two different women at once. One is very homely and the other is a bit of tart. It seems that he has many responsibilities that he just doesn't seem to follow through on. Unfortunately, one of the women is demanding her engagement ring back and he just happened to give it to the other girl. As he fumbles through his daily life and various situations, we see he is not really bad at heart, and really is just trying to make a go of it (like most of us). It is a third girl with whom he really finds solace, but she is hardly stable-going from one place to another on a whim. Will he make the jump to London with her to write, his true passion, or will he stay behind and come to terms with his life in town?

Billy Liar is purposely filmed in black and white and many of the scenes are done to make maximum use of the medium with set design, camera placement, and lighting and contrast. Acting is quite good, and the music helps to realize the efforts of the filmmaker quite effectively. Courtenay is quite adept in this role and has the viewer's sympathy, impatience, and distaste all at the same time. The sound quality of the film is reminiscent of an old television show. Picture is not tremendously sharp, but is otherwise almost entirely free of noise and grain-a tremendous transfer. If you are in the mood for a little light-hearted fantasy, silliness, and romance all bunched up into one, then Billy Liar is your film.

- Brian Bloom

The Shop On Main Street (1965)

Tony struggles to make a living as a carpenter while his shrewish wife is always complaining about how useless he is. The fascists are slowly coming into town and offering work to construct a small monument, but he is decidedly uninterested. The presence in the town grows stronger and his wife's brother is heavily involved in the movement. He looks down upon his sister's husband and they argue after getting drunk. Tony's brother-in-law decides to appoint the poor peasant carpenter as "Aryan controller" of a button store. Under the new laws, put forth by the military, no Jew can own a business, necessitating the need for an Aryan overseer. But all is not well as he clearly is uncomfortable in the new position and the button shop owner is an old senile woman who does not understand what is going on. He pretends to be her assistant and takes home money from the local Jews who are trying to maintain their businesses.

Things get more and more difficult as the fascists set a date for the Jews to be sent to camps and his feelings for the old woman are strong. He realizes what is about to happen and wants to do what is right and save the old woman. But the conflict in his own mind may be too strong for both of them to survive as the remaining Jews are carted up and sent to Germany.

The content of this film is not for everyone. No attempt is made to make the material any more palatable to the viewer. The focus is on a personal and moral level, and primarily the interaction between Tony and the Jews and the non-Jews. The viewer is virtually torn apart much like Tony is during his deliberations as he fights himself to discover the right action. Sound is good though the screen image is somewhat below average. None of this interferes with the strong message this film offers.

- Brian Bloom

Blood - The Last Vampire (2001)

I would like to credit the director of this anime feature but there is a long list of various directors and producers with none in bigger type. The accompanying documentary shows how many different people are needed to produce a computerized feature of this sort. It is from the same studio as the highly rated anime feature Ghost in the Shell. If you are unfamiliar with anime you must be ready for glorious design, color graphics and action mixed with sometimes corny situations and worse dialog. Blood sets a new level in the genre with its magnificent digital animation, including subtle plays of light and shadow not previously seen in the rather two-dimensional anime images. The electronic music score is not up to the level of the screen images, but there is excellent use of the surrounds.

The story unexpectedly takes place on a U.S. Army Air Force base in Japan where the military is on the brink of the Vietnam War; within the walls of the compound are a greater threat - vampires disguised as innocent schoolgirls. (Innocent schoolgirls who turn out to be not quite so innocent are a staple of Japanese anime.) The oversized eyes and mouths seen in much anime are not in evidence here. The unsmiling heroine vampire samurai is a sort of Japanese Lara Croft figure. Does she get her vampires in the end? You ask.

- John Sunier

Enemy Mine (1985)

As a united Earth begins to explore the galaxy, they come across a group of aliens called the Dracs who claim ownership of certain territories. The humans and Dracs are in an ongoing war over these claims. While engaged in battle, an ambitious pilot called Will follows one of the Dracs down towards the surface of a nearby planet. As the Drac's damaged craft heads toward the planet surface, he ejects. Unable to catch him, the determined pilot tries to get out of the atmosphere but collides with the abandoned craft. Marooned on a seemingly deserted planet, the two fight each other until they realize that it is in both of their best interests to join up and seek refuge until they may be able to escape the planet. Together they learn each other's ways and grow to appreciate the other's skills. The Dracs are asexual beings, and when it was time to reproduce, the offspring do not leave the mother Drac alive. Will is forced to take the baby Drac with him and raise him alone. Human slavers who use Dracs as labor occasionally land on the planetoid. When the young Drac innocently runs off so he can be with his own people, he gets captured and it is up to Will to save him and return him home.

This movie is full of action and excitement, with the feel of other movies of this type made during the 80s. There is a typical sci-fi slant that will appeal to some as the two warriors struggle for survival on the planet and ultimately turn their hate for each other into mutual respect and understanding. Picture and sound are both good, and if you are in the mood for a little sci-fi action adventure then you won't be disappointed.

- Brian Bloom

Double Suicide (1969)

Double Suicide is a film adaptation of a Japanese puppet play. The film credits run while we witness some interesting footage of puppeteers hard at work. The story begins with a young, married paper-merchant who has managed to fall head-over-heels in love with a prostitute. He goes to visit her as often as he can at the risk of losing his family, his money, and his very existence. He has been trying to meet her bounty in order to offer her a chance at freedom, and what he believes will be their mutual happiness. Try as he might, he is unable to accrue the necessary funds, and after being made a fool by his brother posing as a samurai, he is back with his family. He is insistent about his commitment to his family and work, but he is confronted with the truth (by his wife) after discovering a letter she wrote to the courtesan. Together, they go off to save the woman from her fate with a rich, pompous, offensive man. When our protagonist finally gets his chance, the action they take is anything but a happy one.

The sound of this DVD was somewhat congested, can-like, and boxy. Voices were still discernible and comprehensible, but the dialogue was a bit lacking in quality. The music track is better and features the music of leading composer Toru Takemitsu. The picture was quite good although occasionally it lacked clarity and focus. Video noise was almost non-existent, and otherwise the transfer was very good. The movie changes contrast depending on the situation. The camera work is very lyrical--almost poetic in some scenes--and most likely mirrors the ways of a puppet play. The story flows well, and the exaggerated characters help bring it to life. If a sexy provocative tragedy is your thing, then pick this one up.

- Brian Bloom

My Man Godfrey (1936)

The time is the thirties and America is in a serious depression. Some of the lucky people are still richer than ever. They don't seem to know what to do with their time except cause trouble and engage in activities that make one question their morality. It's nighttime; the location is the city dump. Two women are hot on the trail looking for a "forgotten man" to help them win a scavenger contest. Godfrey is quite insulted by the proposition, but decides to satisfy his curiosity by coming along. After witnessing the proceedings and telling the rich folk off, the younger of two sisters of the Bullock family offers him a job as a butler. From the inside, he discovers how crazy their family is, and they discover that something is quite different about this man. Everyone becomes obsessed with discovering who Godfrey really is, and what he is doing there. The young sister, Irene, is slowly becoming enamored with the butler, while her sister constantly taunts and insults Godfrey. In the end, it is anyone's idea what will happen when the zany caricatures in the Bullock family have their way with Godfrey.

Of the few really superb screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey clearly stands out. There is not a moment during the film where the viewer is not completely engaged following the witty dialogue or laughing about the comic situations that have occurred. The ending is perhaps a little predictable, but forgiving that, this is one excellent film. The sound is screechy in parts, but understandable nonetheless. The picture quality is dated, somewhat fuzzy and soft, but relatively clean. All and all, definitely worth adding to your collection of great films.

- Brian Bloom

The Night Heaven Fell (1958)

Trouble is brewing in a rural Spanish town when a young woman's passion has led her to commit suicide. Her hotheaded brother, Lamberto, decides to confront the man he believes is responsible. Meanwhile, the virginal Ursula has arrived from the convent to spend time with her aunt. Her aunt is married to the Count De Ribera who is responsible for the trouble with the dead girl. Soon enough a fight ensues and Lamberto is severely hurt. Ursula is quite a free spirit yet innocent in many ways. Her uncle has other ideas for her, but she will have none of that! He decides to go after Lamberto and have him thrown in jail. A confrontation occurs and Lamberto is sent on the run. Ursula has committed herself to loving Lamberto and goes off with him. They go from town to town in an effort to hide from the police. They don't have the money, or the resources to evade the police forever, and an exchange is suggested. The title itself should give a preview as to the final outcome.

This movie not only has a provocative story, but Bardot is enough to leave you with your mouth hanging open. Her sexiness and surly ways pervade every scene. She embodies youth, innocence, and tragedy all at the same time, making her performance quite magnetic. The movie flows well although characters are abandoned and the story goes in a new direction. In the end the feeling is one of a good picture, though not a great one. The video itself is average, grainy, occasionally noisy, fuzzy and faded, but with decent color. The sound is good for the most part, but at about 1h 20m, the audio completely disappears for about 10-15 seconds, coming back normally. Worth checking out just to see Bardot.

- Brian Bloom


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