Short Ends and Leader

A Bunch of Blu 2

This time around, we look at Django, Dark Nature, Darkman, Flash Gordon, and Carlito's Way

The high definition home video technology known as Blu-ray is in an unusual place in 2010. Unlike laserdisc, which failed to fulfill the promise of its expanded aesthetic discussion and preservationist intent (cost kept it from dethroning crappier, more commercial king VHS), it has held steady with its digital sidekick, DVD. There have even been cases when specific titles (The Dark Knight, Avatar) clearly outsell - and outclass - their non-Blu brethren and with 3D advancements looking to make their mark, the format is in a very strange holding pattern. Almost all swear by its improved sound and vision, but some studios aren't willing to invest in the labor-intensive remastering of their movies (which kind of defeats the purpose). So they simply toss out the previous incarnation of a film and hope that the majority of the buyers pay little or no attention to the lack of an update. Most don't.

There are some studios who are trying to keep everyone happy. Disney regularly releases its latest animated efforts in complex combination packages that give both Blu-ray and DVD aficionados something to crow about, and Warner Brothers began a program where you can take your old out of date discs and port them over to the new technology. Universal is even testing the double format idea, releasing a bunch of notable efforts via an intriguing two-side ideal. Again, if the image is not improved and the extras aren't plentiful, there's really no reason for the re-release. Still, looking over the five titles featured in this second installment of our semi-regular Blu-ray overview, you can see that some distributors are trying their best to buoy sales and maintain a level of consumer confidence. On the other hand, they have to deal with the often uneventful movies as part of the presentation. Let's begin with:

Django (Score: 7)

For many, the spaghetti western is singularly defined by Sergio Leone. All others are pretenders to the so-called revisionist throne. Such a sentiment, however, negates brilliant offshoots of said subgenre, including Alejandro Jodorowski's El Topo and Sergio Corbucci's Django. The latter was so influential that it is still frequently name checked by post-modern movie mavericks like Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino. Starring an enigmatic Franco Nero as the title character, we are introduced to the gunrunner chasing bad guys who killed his wife. Totting around a coffin which contains a Gatling gun, he rescues a young woman, murders most of the men he is after, and joins up with a corrupt General to steal some gold. Naturally, it all ends in a stand-off in a cemetery. The power of this violent, wonderfully effective film is everywhere. Reservoir Dogs is noted for lifting its ear slicing scene from this remarkable movie while several video games and anime titles make massive reference to this atmospheric film. The only downside here is Corbucci's rather dull direction. He's just not in the same league as Leone, unable to translate the operatic elements of the oater into anything other than a Wild Bunch style slaughterhouse. But like Peckinpah , he knows where his emotional beats are. Django is fine as a firefight. As a full blown film, it has some minor weaknesses.

(The Blu-ray release from Blue Underground contains an amazing new remaster of the print, interviews with star Nero and assistant director Ruggero Deodato, a 1968 documentary on the spaghetti gener, and a short film The Last Pistolero)

Dark Nature (Score: 4)

When Troma announced it was stepping into the high definition arena, few could fathom how the updated format would conform to the company's decided low (or sometimees, no) budget leanings. The answer has been complicated, to say the least. The first couple of releases - The Class of Nuke 'Em High and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead - have been decent, if not definitive. Their latest, the lame slasher wannabe Dark Nature, doesn't suffer from the same quality control issues. It looks pristine, practically popping off the screen in its shot of digital dynamic. Where it is weak is in the content department. Director Marc de Launay and writer Eddie Harrison are trying to redefine the category, taking much of the mystery out of your standard slice and dice (we meet the killer 30 minutes in) and instead countermand convention by toying with - and tripping up - the typical fright fan expectations. The results aren't worth it. The pace is somnambulistic, the suspense nonexistent, and the overall feeling is that of a home movie bloated with failed theatrical ambitions. While one cannot deny its mood and atmosphere (there are some great found locations here), Dark Nature just drags. Here's hoping the next title given the proto-polish by Lloyd Kaufman and the gang deserves the technical tweaks it's given. This one doesn't.

(The disc contains a commentary from de Launay, a Behind the scenes featurette, an interview with star Vanya Eddie, and a short film entitled The Last Noel)

Flash Gordon (Score: 6)

With Star Wars still mopping up massive box office receipts toward the end of the '70s, every studio was looking for its own cosmic cash cow to milk. For megalomaniacal producer Dino De Laurentiis, the answer was an update of the '30s comic strip by Alex Raymond. Though already tackled by TV (both in live action and animated forms) and a familiar movie serialization starring Olympian Buster Crabbe, the Italian maverick thought he had the perfect approach. So he hired English director Mike Hodges, tapped hot music act Queen to compose the score, and cast former Playgirl centerfold Sam Jones as his titular man of space. With a kitschy Max Von Sydow as Flash's arch-nemesis Ming the Merciless and an overall approach of unadulterated camp, the results are a mixed bag. On the one hand, the movie is a marvel to look at, stunning in its costume and set design as well as its tongue in cheek take on the material. On the other hand, it's obvious why Jones excelled in an one dimensional print medium...with his clothes off. He's so wooden and heroically inert that the scenery consistently upstages him. With dialogue so dopey is stays with you, and an pervasive sense of fun and purposeful cheek, this is a clear "love it or hate it" effort. Sync up to its weird wavelength and you'll have an amusing time.

(This release ports over most of the content from a previous DVD edition, including interviews with comic book artist Alex Ross and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. There is also a chance to see Episode One of the original Crabbe serial)

Darkman (Score: 8)

Long before he gave Spider-man his cinematic web-slinging skills, Sam Raimi wanted to create his own motion picture comic book hero. Using a short story he wrote in homage to the old Universal monsters of the '30s, he came up with the origins of 'Darkman', a scientist (Liam Neeson's Peyton Westlake) who is accidentally caught up in his lawyer girlfriend's (Frances McDormand) whistle-blowing against a upcoming land development deal. The mobster behind the money destroys our hero's lab, leaving him and his synthetic skin technology for dead. With brain damaged rage and revenge on his mind, the newly dubbed criminal crusader perfects his formula, covers his rampant scars with the new flesh, and goes out looking for the ones who wronged him. The only down side? His manmade epidermis can only last one hour. Brilliant in its use of Raimi's signature flash and fury style, as well as anchored by excellent performances from Neeson, McDormand, and Larry Drake as a vile villain, it proved that the former genre genius could manage and maintain a big budget action film. A decade later, Peter Parker and company would benefit from this masterful test run.

(Sadly, Universal's Blu-ray is bereft of added content - meaning there is not a single bonus feature offered)

Carlito's Way (Score: 7)

With the success of - and the scandal surrounding - Scarface, Brian DePalma was reluctant to reenter the realm of Hispanic crime and punishment. But when Al Pacino brought him the story of a Puerto Rican hustler in '70s New York City, the lure of familiarity was just too great for the director. It didn't hurt that he was coming off the greatest critical drubbing of his entire professional career with the high profile flop, The Bonfire of the Vanities. So he hired Sean Penn for a pivotal role, refitted the material as a kind of contemporary noir, and author Judge Irwin Torres' criminal with a conscious made his motion picture debut. Sprawling and epic without completely revisiting the cocaine and Coconut Grove elements of his previous gonzo gangster pic, DePalma lets Pacino settle into his accent, maneuvering the familiar Big Apple backdrops with ease. There is still slickness and style o'plenty, and as a sleazeball lawyer, Penn frequently threatens to steal the movie away from his then higher profile partners. While ultimately not as timeless or satisfying as Tony Montana's journey into drug-addled desperation, this would remain one of the few high points in DePalma's later oeuvre, which is quite sad considering his status as an early '70s Hitchcock riffing wonder.

(As part of the package, Universal offers deleted scenes, a Making-of featurette, and an interview with DePalma)

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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