31 December 2006

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Television Pt. 1

The Best Moments Of The Amazing Kreskin
(VCE Inc., 3 discs)

This three-disc set compiles nearly nine hours of the World’s Foremost Mentalist’s years on Canadian television from 1971 to 1977, which began as The Amazing World Of Kreskin (from 1975-77, it was retitled The New Kreskin Show) and was produced at Ottawa, Ontario’s CJOH Studios (where Bill Luxton, of Uncle Willy And Floyd infamy, served as Kreskin’s Ed McMahon-slash-Jim Fowler, steering the largely college-age audience members through their polyester-clad paces). Kreskin pretty much commanded the first season on his own, bounding into the audience rows Donahue-style to decipher Social Insurance Numbers, "mind-read" their playing card selections (always a fresh deck!), and lead draftees into experiments in table tilting and Jack Bergerac’s old arm-twirling shtick from The Hypnotic Eye. His first wave of guests was limited to such otherworldly oddballs as prolific paranormal phenom Sybil Leek (she pleads tolerance for modern druids and tells of meeting H.G. Wells and Lawrence Of Arabia as a child) and former-wife-of-Lex-Barker turned psychic/astrological columnist Arlene Dahl.

The program became such a hit that by its next season, it was second to Hockey Night In Canada as the most watched homegrown series. The star power, such as it can be defined under these terms, grew comparatively to include such tax-shelter-era staples as Robert Vaughan (warming up for Ed Hunt’s Starship Invasions perhaps?), Patrick MacNee (in Toronto shooting The New Avengers with Joanna Lumley, enthusing over Langella’s stage turn as Dracula), Loretta Switt, Nipsey Russell, The King Of Kensington (and then-CanCon icon) himself Al Waxman (Americans will know him from Cagney And Lacey and William Fruet’s Death Bite), William Shatner (who would appear four times during a career low point that would have him doing spots for the Canadian grocery chain “Loblaws” while Roddenberry prepped umpteen versions of his Star Trek revival), and even Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who was the co-founder of Project: Bluebook and an advisor on Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (in which he can be glimpsed in a cameo).

Considering the age of the episodes and the fact that the series was entirely stage bound and recorded live, the overall video/audio quality of the set is more than adequate—the image is soft (the transfers are reportedly direct from the original masters) but the programs seem complete despite the odd reference to an event from an episode not included in the compilation (for reasons unknown). Kreskin (born George Joseph Kresge, Jr., but whose legal name is “The Amazing Kreskin, btw) comes off witty and eminently likeable with a gangly, disarming rapport with his audience and C-list celebrity guests that was no doubt essential to his apparent “abilities”—in the same era that could make Sonny Bono a star it’s not too much of a leap to conceive that this bespectacled beanpole could enchant a nation week-in, week-out. What’s interesting (and admirable, considering his seemingly inexhaustible supply of true believers) is that he vocally dismisses any notion of his illusions as the result of some supernatural power, and repeatedly reminds the viewers that his apparent “gifts” are nothing more than a refined aptitude for slight-of-hand and deduction based upon information from the participants that is willing, if unconsciously, offered. At the time, he was offering $50,000 (Canadian?) to anyone who could prove he utilized “plants” in his audience (Luxton would choose Kreskin’s participants by chucking golf balls over his shoulder into the seats)—presumably, the offer still stands today.

If three discs—which include engaging and lucid commentary from the still-at-it Kreskin himself--aren’t enough, the collection comes with a mini-reproduction of the vintage Milton-Bradley board game “Kreskin’s ESP”, which was originally released in 1967 (before headlining his own series, he was a popular fixture on Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, and The Tonight Show) and was a huge bestseller (I was tempted to fork out nearly a hundred smackeroos for it at a memorabilia show until my significant-other talked me out of it). The gem that comes with the game’s “mystery” pendulum had to be manufactured in India and delayed the set’s release for months—note that this pressing is limited to 3000 copies and will eventually be replaced by a 2-disc set sans game repro.

21 December 2006

No Matter What, It'll Be Better Than "Freejack"...

Well blow me down!--here's the first shot of Keith Richards as Jack Sparrow's poopdeck pappy in the third and reportedly final chapter in the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" saga--arguably the worst kept "surprise" since Spock's death in "Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan". The studio has been ordering sites to take down the still, so now's my chance to see just how off the radar I really am!

Richards appears suitably leathery and pickled here in what I believe to be his first "acting" role since 1967, when he played the Marquess Of Queensbury at the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde in The Rolling Stones' little-seen music video (before they were called music videos) "We Love You".
All I know is, it makes for a powerful argument against releasing first run films in the Imax format ...

15 December 2006

Wonder Where They'll Insert The Joel Siegel Blurb?

Geez Louise--can you believe that this is the teaser poster for Eli Roth's in-production "Hostel 2"? Yes, apparently, this is legit--I wonder if there'll be a lenticular variant? I'm looking forward to seeing this one up at theatres soon--an alternative to all those Photoshop'd heads would be welcome no matter what the image (how come no one's hiring Drew Struzan?)--although some dim-witted patrons might mistake it for the Taco Bell menu. This is definitely the most delightfully disgusting poster since the one for Tobe Hooper's "The Funhouse" (which I had on my bedroom wall for most of my teenage years)...and the crimson hues would go well with the terra cotta red in my living room...

13 December 2006

Farewell, Peter Boyle (1935-2006)

Peter Boyle, one of our greatest character actors (who first aspired to become a Christian monk!), passed away last night in New York. He'll be forever known to generations of sitcom viewers as the erzatz father of Ray Romano, but film buffs will remember him for his dramatic work in John Avildsen's "Joe" (you could buy an LP in the early 70s which contained Boyle's uber-conservative rants set to music), Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (he was The Wizard, after all), and let's show a bit of love for Peter Hyam's underappreciated Introvision-era "High Noon" in space: "Outland" (where Boyle was the heavy opposite Connery's interplanetary marshall).

In comedies, he was never less than hilarious: remember his turn as the showtunes' loving guru in "Honeymoon In Vegas"? Or as Carl Lazlo opposite Bill Murray's Hunter S. Thomson in "Where The Buffalo Roam"? Count me as one of the few who caught the one-time airing of the TV pilot "Poochinski"--a "Turner And Hooch" rip-off in which Boyle's cop dies in the line of duty and comes back in the form of a puppet pit bull terrier, opposite George Newbern.

But this--this (the photo above)--is how I will remember him...his crowning achievement less than a decade into his acting career....man, Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" still kills me every time....

07 December 2006

"The Abandoned" Reviewed At Movieforum Blog

Those of you who've seen Nacho Cerda's grisly--but artful--featurettes "Aftermath" and "Genesis" have been anticipating (and some, dreading) his first feature film for some time now--the good news is that it's finally done and due to hit theatres sometime next year. "The Abandoned" may lack the gore of his previous shorts but it makes up for it in dread and intensity, plus, one of the most unnerving and punishing soundtracks I've ever endured. Read my TIFF 2006 review here.

06 December 2006

The Dohler Factor: 1946-2006

Seems like all I do lately is write about another person who's died...but here's someone you've probably never heard of who definitely merits a mention to anyone who grew up making movies in high school at a time when the format wars were between Super 8 and the Polaroid "Instant Movie".

Baltimore filmmaker/publisher/author Don Dohler passed away on December 2 from cancer. While he shared some supporting players with fellow Marylander John Waters (chief among them, the one and only George Stover), Dohler never made it out of the direct-to-video schlock bin, where he seemed to happily toil for most of his career, working with local friends and family in his hometown. In 1976, 30-year old Dohler had a shotgun held at his head during a restaurant robbery--a life-altering experience that inspired him to devote himself to realizing his life-long dream to making movies.

Amazingly, his first feature, 1978's "The Alien Factor", made it to the cover of Forrest J. Ackerman's "Famous Monsters Of Filmland", and while it was quite terrible by any reasonable person's definition, he managed to sell it to Ted Turner's then-new superstation for a profit (riding the s.f. boom launched by "Star Wars") and it became in immediate late-night staple (I'm pretty sure I stayed up to watch it on the CBS Late Movie, which always played the coolest stuff).

I've spent the better part of my adult life ripping Dohler's astonishingly amateurish and ineptly-acted films to shreds for some admitted easy laughs ("you think "Plan 9" was a bad movie? You ain't seen this thing called "Night Beast"!), and perhaps I'm just being sentimental now that he's passed, but I've got to admit that Dohler was something of an inspiring figure to me when I was a high-school Super 8 filmmaker. During an era before AfterEffects, mini-DV, and YouTube, backyard filmmaking was damned hard and expensive work--no matter how grand your vision, you were always fighting the limitations of the technology. Getting an indoor image without blasting the location with floodlights was nearly impossible. There was no "undo" button when you applied your splicing cement incorrectly onto the magnetic soundstripe. A hair in the gate meant you spent another $25 for 3 minutes of film (providing you shot at the cheapy-speed of 18 fps). Hell, you couldn't even show your films to anyone without trucking over a projector and a screen. Some of you know what I'm talking about...

Dohler was a kindred spirit who self-published a magazine (later sold to Starlog Press) entitled "Cinemagic", which for its too-brief run was the Bible for us Spielberg-wannabees. Each issue was packed cover-to-cover with fun and enormously informative how-to's on creating Rick Baker-style latex makeups, constructing stop-motion armatures ala Harryhausen, as well as effective illusions from forced-perspective miniatures, backwound double-exposures, and most importantly to aspiring sleaze merchants like myself, the ideal mixture for stage blood (red food dye and corn syrup, as I recall). Best of all, you could send in a photo, synopsis, and crew list of your film and they'd print it, just like in "Variety"!

My own "Deliverence with zombies" gorefest--"Blood Hunt"--got a mention (but the photo of my friend Colin in rotting ghoul makeup didn't get printed or was lost when someone opened the envelope). Thanks to Dohler, we all felt like real filmmakers! Who care that our movies weren't any damn good? They were fun to make--and that's exactly the way Dohler's so-called "professional" films (straining the definition until you can hear the tendons snapping) should be regarded. In the right mood, some of that spirit could spill over into a reasonably satisfying viewing experience.

After 1985's "The Galaxy Invader", Dohler stopped making films to focus on his day job, editing newspapers and publishing books on low-budget FX. He returned in 2001 with "The Alien Factor 2" (shot as "Alien Rampage"), a sequel in name only (retitled by Fred Olen Ray for DVD release on his Retromedia label). His "Timewarp Films" company, formed in 2000, produced several micro-budgeted thrillers over the years, the latest being "Vampire Sisters".

Here's a fun audio interview with Dohler from Ourmedia.

01 December 2006

Shirley Walker: 1945-2006

More sad news: Film composer Shirely Walker has passed away from a brain aneurism too soon at the age 0f 61. A rare female artist in a field largely dominated by men, Walker spent most of her adult life as a professional pianist (she played synthesizer on the "Apocalypse Now" score, and collaborated with Carmine Coppola on "The Black Stallion") and composer for industrials, commercial jingles, and B-films, before moving into full-time Hollywood work as a conductor for Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer.

Amazingly, when John Carpenter chose Walker to compose the music for his "Memoirs Of An Invisible Man", it marked the first time in Hollywood history that a woman was to write the score for a major feature film.

The bulk of Walker's work was for science fiction, fantasy, and horror projects: she paid her dues on direct-to-video programmers like 'The Dungeonmaster" and "Ghoulies', with Bernard Rose's "Chicago Joe And The Showgirl" as a detour into "respectability" and her first collaboration with Zimmer. Soon, the offers became more high-profile: the "Final Destination" films, Carpenter's "Escape From LA", the "Willard" remake, "Space: Above And Beyond".

For many superhero buffs, her career legacy will be her themes and background cues for "Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm", "Batman: The Animated Series", and "Superman: The Animated Series, in addition to the short-lived "The Flash" live action series--filling the considerable shoes of Danny Elfman and John Williams with passion and artistry. She was set to score the upcoming animated adaption of Darwin Cooke's "DC: New Frontier".

Betweening her own scoring gigs, Walker continued to act as a conductor on other films, includng "True Lies", "Striking Distance", and "A League Of Their Own".

Given the stigma against genre films, Walker's body of work has never been given the recognition and serious study afforded to the other icons of the field, but in time--having found the right mainstream project--I'm sure she would've eventually rose to the esteemed echelon of Elfman, Williams, Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith, Howard Shore, and the late Basil Poledouris, to name but a few.

The upcoming remake of Bob Clark's "Black Christmas" will be her last screen credit.