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Thursday, Jun 18, 2009

In theory, it’s a fantastic idea - buying your DVDs directly from a studio, a service offering even the most discerning consumer the possibility of rifling through a huge untapped vault of unreleased titles. When Warner Brothers announced its intention to create a sell-through Archive Collection, giving fans a chance to purchase movies that have never made it to the digital domain, there was celebration - as well as calls for caution. Initial information suggested sloppily created DV-Rs with little consideration for added content or technical specifications. And early reviews were less than stellar. Still, as the number of available films increased in carefully controlled “waves”, the critical tide has started to turn. Indeed, it seems that the more movies Warners makes available, the less arguments advocates have over the transfer quality or lack of extras.


Make no mistake about it, this is a pure cash cow for the studio. They make it very clear on the website that these are not special edition and carefully remastered versions of their films. Instead, like a pirate operation in the backroom of some major Metropolitan mob hideout, Warners is “burning” discs for you, asking $19.95 in return for a bit of entertainment nostalgia. The reason that some of these movies have never made it to DVD is clear - they are unknown niche offerings from eras so bygone that only historians and arftform geeks recognize the names. But there are lost treasures to be found among the ruins, offerings like Freebie and the Bean and Solider in the Rain that, while dated, deliver the kind of unquestionable quality that will keep the Archive Collection in business - at least for now.


For those unfamiliar with either film, SE&L sampled what Warners has to offer, and the results are definitely worth a recommendation. In the case of Freebie and the Bean, we are instantly transported back to the post-peace malaise of the early ‘70s. In Soldier, the beginning of the ‘60s stands in sharp satiric contrast to the suburban Conservative stance of the previous decade. Together, both argue against conformity and for bucking the trend. In the case of the Gleason/McQueen military spoof, such unconventionality pays poor dividends. For Freebie and his Mexican partner “The Bean” however, lawlessness and bigotry are just part of parceling out justice in the big city. Our Caucasian cop steals from those he is supposed to serve and protect. For his Hispanic other half, towing the American Dream has led to worry, panic, and a sneaking suspicion that his wife is having an affair.


For all of its “in your face” derring-do, however, Freebie and the Bean has not aged well. That’s not to say that time has completely tarnished the original bad cop buddy film. Far from it. But for those who’ve heard of Richard Rush’s legendary controversial comedy, a movie made up of exciting action scenes, a complicated crime drama plot, and enough racial slurs to make the KKK proud, this film will be a revelation - and not necessarily in a good way. The plot has our amiable anti-heroes working to nail numbers racketeer Red Meyers. After they find a piece of evidence in the mobster’s garbage can, they think they have the case sewn up. Too bad the dictatorial DA thinks otherwise. When an informant tells them that Meyers may not be long for this world (the Detroit mob has put a contract out on him), it’s up to the duo to protect their prize defendant.


As an example of old school A-list acting, Freebie definitely has its moments. Sure, James Caan is in full blown scandalous superstar mode, mocking every ethnicity he can while carrying over the cache he earned from Brian’s Song, The Godfather, and Cinderella Liberty, while Alan Arkin is fleshing out the fame he found in Catch-22, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and Little Murders. These are two men at the top of their given game, and when you add in cult director/maverick Rush, who runs ramshackle over ‘70s movie convention, you should have something subversive, and wildly entertaining. Sure, the rebelliousness is obvious, but in light of a 35 year advance in cultural dialogue, Polish Jokes and casually thrown epithets just don’t seem that shocking - or funny.


In fact, Freebie and the Bean is far more enjoyable as a work of old school stunt coordination than anything else. It’s clear from the number of automotive crackups here that John Landis studied this film over and over again before he destroyed half of Chicago in The Blues Brothers. Set in San Francisco, Rush turns the entire town into a sight gag, from a three story plunge into an old couple’s dilapidated bedroom, to a disrupted art fair where a giant domino display delivers on its precarious set-up shtick. All the while, professionals both behind and in front of the wheel make us believe in the reality of what is happening, mechanical threat without the sometimes noticeable CG sheen of the current action trade. Naturally, if you look hard enough, you will see Caan and Arkin’s stand-ins doing most of the dangerous heavy horsepower lifting, but just like similarly styled films (Bullitt, The French Connection), we can equally appreciate their contributions to the experience.


The rest of Freebie and the Bean will be a little tougher going. Caan and Arkin are given free reign by Rush to mimic Robert Altman and his overlapping dialogue routine. Jokes - or what passes as humor - frequently get lost in the actor’s desire to improve and adlib. Similarly, the whole ‘supercop’ approach is so middling Me Decade. Caan earns his nickname by basically flimflamming and scamming the constituency into giving him stuff (clothes, cars, cash) for nothing. Today, we would call that obvious corruption and graft. Then, it was part and parcel of cleaning up the mean streets of our decaying urban landscape. And let’s not forget the outright brutality - Freebie and the Bean beat up more potential witnesses than they ever interview, and when a possible criminal comes into their felonious frame of reference, it’s all Tarantino-ready gun battles and firepower.


Soldier in the Rain stands in stark contrast to the cops and robbers routine of Freebie, and yet there are many similarities in both perspective and attitude. In this 1963 lark, Steve McQueen is Sgt. Eustis Clay. In less than a week, he will be getting out of the Army, and he wants his best buddy - and get rich quick co-conspirator M/Sgt Maxwell Slaughter - to join him. Unfortunately, the middle-aged mixer (played by Jackie Gleason) has no desire to step back into civilian life. Hoping for one last chance to lure his pal back into the real world, Clay sets Slaughter up with local “good girl” Bobbie Jo Pepperdine. Still in high school, the blond bimbette thinks the Master Sergeant is a “jellybelly fatty”. But as Clay’s time grows short, Slaughter shows that he is willing to do anything to protect his friend’s dignity, including putting his own safety on the line.


As an example of farce, Soldier in the Rain is an oddity, especially for its formidable cast. No one cites this film when referencing the work of talented stars like McQueen, Gleason, or Tuesday Weld, yet all excel in this example of armed forces irreverence. Oddly enough, it’s the rugged he-man that goes for the laughs, while The Great One is reduced to a patented pathos magnet. The entire film is based around their Frick and Frack relationship, Clay getting into all kinds of trouble and the slick Slaughter rescuing him time and again. With a script co-written by Blake Edwards (himself in the midst of a career epiphany, having directed The Days of Wine and Roses before and prepping The Pink Panther next), there is a tendency to take the whole country mouse/city mouse thing a bit too far. But thanks to the cast, any problems are conveniently overcome.


This doesn’t mean Soldier in the Rain is a masterpiece. Indeed, director Ralph Nelson seems stifled by the material and the setting. All he seems to do is show GI’s sweating, and stumbling around, and fighting. He never uses the locations as anything other than stages, places for the actors to move about it. Similarly, Slaughter’s domain is a wealth of interesting ideas (a rare air conditioner, a soda machine) and yet the novelty is never once exploited. In fact, Soldier in the Rain has more missed opportunities than taken chances, and yet the performances carry us across these pitfalls and - more often than not - into something equally successful. Truth be told, this is a fine forgotten film that misses greatness by the slimmest of margins.


And this is the beauty of the Warners Archive Collection. While something like Freebie had a long and profitable shelf-life for the studio (it was a big hit the year of its release), Solider has been relegated to also-ran in the history of several famous names. Neither disc will be winning awards for video or audio quality, but then again they are significantly better than bootlegs that never take such concepts into consideration. As they roll out more and more titles, as the merchandising element of the approach gets more popular and polished, other companies may follow suit. In fact, it’s hard to see this set-up not becoming the norm for other nominal films. Warners may be innovators when it comes to such a sell-through ideal, but it’s the movies that matter. And in the case of Freebie and the Bean/Soldier in the Rain, it’s well worth it.


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Thursday, Jun 4, 2009

With Land of the Lost slinking into theaters like the dying 800lb $100 million gorilla it is, the Kroffts better take stock of their entire creative canon before another high concept idea comes along to destroy their nostalgia heavy cred once and for all. An oeuvre as tenuous as the one the puppeteers crafted during the ‘60s and ‘70s can’t survive another smart-assing at the hands of Hollywood talent that believes anything coming out of their craw is uproariously irrelevant, and with the beloved psychedelic kid crack known as H. R. Pufnstuf next up on the remake/revision/reboot chopping block, there’s much more than trouble afoot. The aging brothers had better be careful, less they turn over their story of Living Island and a young flute-playing boy named Jimmy to Shawn Levy, a solo Jonas Brother, and a dragged up Eddie Murphy as Witchie-Poo.


In fact, what makes Land of the Lost such an underwhelming pile of junk could have easily been avoided had the Kroffts committed to doing something akin to their old show, only with bigger special effects and less artistic (re: budgetary) restraints. The original series relied on the innovation of Star Trek‘s David Gerrold to guide it in a more serious direction. On the big screen, it was a copy of Jokes from the Dinosaur John that seemed to inspire the screenplay. Clearly, the brothers are caught in a post-modern mainstream conundrum. Stick too close to the original material and people will think you’re merely cashing in - memory lane wise. Go too far outside the reminiscence, and you end up with a flailing funny man, an overused character comedian, and a nubile young Englishwoman running around with a mini-sasquatch acting like an extra from VH1’s Tool Academy - Paleolithic Edition.


So we here at SE&L have decided to do the right thing, and give the Kroffts our unsolicited, and probably unneeded, advice on where to take the remaining items in their catalog. We have purposefully avoided a few shows (let’s face it - nothing could save Dr. Shrinker) and avoided what could best be called the duo’s Love Boat Lite franchises - aka shoddy celeb-athons Lost Saucer and Far Out Space Nuts. No, the best material for a cinematic jumpstart remains the more fantastical shows they forged. Land of the Lost may have tapped into a growing underage fascination with all things…um…Jurassic Park, but for our money, nothing spells mega-bucks like singing animals, talking head gear, and a slimy creature from the deep blue sea bunking with a couple of hormonally uneasy California teens. Cue Johnny Whittaker… 


The Bugaloos


Billed as “The British Monkees” at the time - which is odd, considering what the Pre-Fab Four were marketed as during their brief TV tenure - this tale about talented insects doing battle with a fame-whoring battleaxe who lives in a giant jukebox seems perfect for today’s Hannah High School Camp Rock Musical crowd. Even better, the filmmakers can hand pick a uniformly unknown cast, raise ‘em up Disney style, and the market the crap out of them until puberty - or the lawsuit - hits. For the Kroffts, it could/would their own pre-teen cash machine. For the role of superstar wannabe Benita Bizarre, a failing one time beauty who is desperate to have a few more moments in the limelight, we say stick with what works - Janice Dickenson, or perhaps another certified plastic surgery disaster, Cher.


Lidsville


This will be a tough one, but follow us here. First off, whoever tackles this project will have to clean up the horribly un-PC elements involved in the original series. After all, these living chapeaus used to mimic the kind of stereotypes one expected to wear them, leading to goombah fedoras, hayseed straw hats, and worst of all, a cigar story “injun” stove pipe model. After that, it’s smooth sailing. Do a little motion capture, get an up and coming child star to fill the shoes so ably accessed by one Butch Patrick, and turn this story of a boy trapped in a magician’s hat (and the land of talking toppers within) into a full blown F/X extravaganza. Of course, no Krofft production would be complete without a certified star turn as villain. And who does SE&L suggest for HooDoo, the ‘flamboyant’ evil prestidigitator? John Travolta - he’s great at fey wickedness.


Sigmund and the Sea Monsters


This is the biggest no brainer of the bunch. A young boy keeping an ocean creature as a pet has been all over the Multiplex as of late, what with The Water Horse and…well, The Water Horse vying for quality kid vid attention. In this case, one could skew the material a little older, and go for a couple of Friends of Apatow in the leads - say Michael Cera as Johnny and Jonah Hill as Scott. Grab another Superbad alum - Emma Stone - as the hottie down the street who our hero pines away for (complete with pimply pop love songs) and a gaggle of celebrity voices for the all important roles of CG sea monsters Sigmund, Big Momma, Big Daddy, and brothers Burp and Slurp, and one can’t imagine the cash not rolling in. Perhaps the most important element - no small humans in suits. We were dumb in the 70s. We’d believe anything. But post-millennial moviegoers can sense a little person in a costume a mile away.


Wonderbug


Let’s face it - Lindsay Lohan’s stock and trade in Tinsel Town is at an all time low. She’s so last week that she can’t even get arrested for getting arrested. What better way to start the slow and painful road trip toward entertainment rehabilitation than co-starring in this blatant Love Bug rip-off about a car with a mind of its own. Sure, she’d have to share the set-up with adolescent male buddies Barry and C.C., but she needs to get used to such subpar billing. Of course, as with any animated vehicle…vehicle, Wonderbug and his normative alter-ego Schlepcar would have to be state of the art. Maybe the Kroffts could convince the Wachowskis to step in and handle the directing duties. They probably have a warehouse of Speed Racer leftovers they could retrofit for this project (it’s not like anyone’s calling for a sequel to that notorious, non-starter, right?).


ElectraWoman and DynaGirl


Sincerely, of all the semi-serious ideas being tossed around here, the notion of a big screen Dark Knight like look at two fetching female super heroines has the feeling of Thelma and Louise with less whining and more Electra-powers. By days, these babes work as journalists. By night, they are spandex wearing, take no prisoner bad-asses, cleaning up the violent city streets and looking fab-u-lous in the process. With Hollywood currently going ga-ga over any under 30 waif with a non-existent waistline and an even smaller resume, this would be the perfect vehicle for a pair of our more ‘seasoned’ sexpot performers. Give Quentin Tarantino the greenlight, let him hire his dream duo, and get ready for the real grindhouse experience, comic book Kill Bill style…or something like that.


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Saturday, May 23, 2009
All five reviews in one convenient location...

Finally, after years of waiting and hundreds of broken promises, Giuseppe Andrews has self-released his long anticipated


. Over the last few days, Short Ends and Leader has reviewed each of the five films, discovering some of the actor turned auteur’s finest work in the process. For those interested in easy access to the links, here is a list of the films offered. Just click on the title to be taken to the write-ups.


Monkey


Air Conditioning


The Date Movie


In Our Garden


Dad’s Chicken


Enjoy!


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Monday, May 18, 2009

He’s known to many for his numerous mainstream film roles, including turns in efforts by Eli Roth (Cabin Fever), Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), and Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City, LOOK). But true movie lovers know him as the genius behind such trailer park treasures as Touch Me in the Morning, Dribble, Period Piece, and Schoof. As part of a week long celebration of all things Giuseppe Andrews, SE&L will be looking at five - yes FIVE new films by the cine-maverick, titles originally slated to be part of Troma’s The Bathrobe Homeschool Box Set. They include long sought after efforts like In Our Garden, Date Movie, and Air Conditioning. For those still curious about what we’re discussing, the links below will lead to our numerous takes on the filmmaker’s fascinating oeuvre. So sit back and enjoy as we ready another pack of raves for someone who truly is the Godard of the Garbage Heap. Once you’ve witness the brilliance that is his creative canon, you’ll never look at cinema the same way again.


Giuseppe Andrews: Godard a Go-Go


Okie Dokie


Giuseppe Andrews: The Americano Trilogy


Giuseppe Andrews: Two More from the Trailer Park


Giuseppe Andrews: A Sampler of Cinematic Splendor


Giuseppe Andrews’ Orzo


Giuseppe Andrews’ Schoof


Giuseppe Andrews’ It’s All Not So Tragic


Giuseppe Andrews’ Airplane Pillows


Giuseppe Andrews’ The Check Out


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Monday, May 4, 2009

It started with a sign. Strike that, with a bumper sticker. Everyday, as I walked to school, I would pass the house at the end of our street and see the familiar message straddled across the back window (apparently, the owner didn’t want their car’s chrome damaged by such a vinyl placard - or perhaps thought the higher placement would attract more attention?). While my memory is now as foggy as a San Francisco morning, I do remember certain parts of the sentiment - and in the light of revisionist history, I am convinced the communication was clear - “Call NBC - Save Star Trek”. At the time, I was probably six, going on seven, and I was unsure what the issue was, including what Star Trek itself…was. Even a couple years later, when older kids in school would lament its passing, I was perplexed.


Fast forward four years. I’m ten going on eleven. Saturday morning TV is my life, as it is for anyone who grew up in the format’s formative decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s. NBC, which I then understood was one of the three major broadcast companies in America, was bringing Star Trek back (there’s that name again…) in cartoon form. Many of my friends in Fifth Grade were ecstatic, anticipating the return of one of their favorite franchises though, honestly, few had any idea what they were actually talking about. As sci-fi nerds, we shared favorite authors and books. But something about Star Trek bridged a gap for many that I, as a maturing adolescent, was yet to discover. So I watched the animated adventures of the Starship Enterprise and was…well, I’m not sure what to say. Then I discovered the reruns of the original series.


You have to remember what life was like 35 years ago. There was no legitimate cable television (though first variations of same were being tested somewhere way out in the Midwest) and for those of us lucky enough to live in a sprawling urban market (Chicago), there were six - count ‘em, SIX! - TV channels to surf through. ABC, CBS, and NBC were the “Big Three” - while there was always a PBS alternative to explore (ZOOM, anyone?). In addition, we were lucky enough to have a local independent, WGN, and a UHF option. So we were literally living in the lap of entertainment luxury, the choices and available time slots seeming to mesh perfectly with our after school/weekend needs. Of course, in retrospect, we were living in an era of paltry opportunities. I sometimes wonder if my appreciation for certain shows is based on a genuine love, or the forced favoritism of having no other alternative.


Yet I loved Trek. It followed me. It tagged along as I moved to Florida (a true bastion of variety nothingness). It accompanied me as I sat through Star Wars seven times. It became a presence in my conversations with friends, and most importantly, a freshman year college ritual. I was one of the few residents in my door with access to my own color TV, and everyday, once classes were completed and the various recreational vices were begun, the 13” mega-screen was tuned to the continuing voyages of that iconic spacecraft and its capable crew going boldly where no man had gone before. My roommate and I would set ourselves up on our beds, then allow in the growing throng, a couple turning into more than a dozen by the time the daily diversion became a habit.


During those heady, smoke filled afternoons, we’d argue over characters and favorite episodes. We’d rally behind certain actors and mock those who favored the so-called “fringe” (sorry Sulu and Chekov). We learned the names of episode writers and sought out books and other contributions by them. And most significantly, we fueled the fanbase fires. We elevated a once dead speculative fiction masterwork, made by people interested in ideas vs. massive merchandising dollars (wonder who that might be???) and argued for its continuing commercial relevance. Debate all you want to over the first fighters in the mix, the men and women who convinced NBC to give the original series one last third season chance. You can also praise the participation of the ‘70s adults, whose fond memories of the material kept the syndication scores high.


But it was us who made Star Trek into the viable property you now see before you today. It was us who tolerated the tepid, trying aspects of The Motion Picture (or “The Motion Sickness” as we called it back then) and turned it into a monster hit. It was us who initially celebrated the returning Wrath of Khan, who practiced our silly Shatner screams and amazing Montalban line readings long before most of you were born. We were the demographic, the 18 to 24 year olds who mandated the movies that were made. We had helped George Lucas cement his status as a fantasy filmmaker to watch (and later, reject). We gave Steven Spielberg his career defining hits, and sadly, helped Hollywood move from the post-modern majesty of ‘70s cinema to the high concept cheapness of the disposable ‘80s.


Perhaps that’s why now, some thirty years after Robert Wise took the original actors and thrust them directly onto the big screen for all the world to see, we Star Trek geeks are ready to see the series reborn. After all the Next Generations and Deep Space Nines, after the outsized ideas of Voyager and the failed origin attempts of Enterprise, the time has come to go back to square one and reset the star date. As Spock would agree, it’s only logical. The first cast is now far too old to jumpstart the franchise, and the various fragmented incarnations of the concept have apparently worn out their welcome (though Jean-Luc Picard and crew could still give the series a run for its residual money). By finding a proper way to bring Trek into the 21st century, by introducing the youth of today to the joys of yesterday’s future, without the stigma of the 11 other films flying over their head, a whole new chapter in series’ lore can be written.


As Paramount reconfigures the original, adding new effects and a professional polish to what was often a seat of their pants production, as DVD gives way to further Blu-ray wonders, fans can look forward to J.J. Abrams reboot masterpiece (my rave review arrives Tuesday) and the possibilities it offers. Let’s face it - if it can satisfy an old school Trek head (both Trekkies and Trekkers seem so…silly) like me, and make me wish for more installments just like it, the individuals behind the scenes are doing something right. Remember, we are the ones who made Star Trek what it is today. It’s nice to know that, some 40 plus years later, the right people were put in place to “save” it. It makes all daily trips past the bumper sticker seem all the more real - and relevant.


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