Category Archives: Uncategorized

Smart Money (1931)

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3 stars out of 4.

Someone obviously came up with the idea to re-team Robinson and Cagney after their huge successes with Little Caesar and  The Public Enemyrespectively the previous year. This is exactly what Smart Money is, another gangster picture culled from “ripped from the headlines” news stories where the lead character will be a fictionalized variant based on several real life notorious crime figures.

This became Warner’s bread and butter release during the worst years of the Depression and still pack quite a punch these days, particularly these earlier films that arrived before the Code implementation. These Pre-Code gangster releases are grittier and darker, and today are finally seen again uncut. If they were reissued or put on tape any earlier it was always in a truncated Code enforced edit.

All this aside, Smart Money is an inferior picture that skirts by on the charm of its stars and the PreCode elements. Otherwise it’s all  very standardized and drags despite its short runtime. Robinson is given the lead, with Cagney playing a supporting role. He naturally steals all his scenes and it only when both are present onscreen that the picture really lights up. Of particular note is a small bit part for pre-fame Boris Karloff as some sort of pimp and a scene where Cagney pantomimes the err…accentuations of a certain lady that Robinson will find of certain interest.

It’s thankfully short, but many narrative contrivances cannot be overlooked, especially the apparent bloodthirstiness of the police and the sudden ending designed to punish evildoers.

Not a bad way to spend a little bit of time though. An hour and twenty minutes of pure American cinema pairing two of the great stars. Found in WB’s phenomenal Gangsters Volume 3 DVD set which can be had for NOTHING online. Highly recommended.

The transfer is astonishing for those used to grimy tape and laser releases. The film is uncut 1.33:1 in a clean typical WB transfer with a healthy grain field. The sound is clear and undistorted mono. There is a commentary  and full WB night at the Movies feature on all these from the Gangster sets. Maybe someday the studio will get its act together and do one big set of all their classic Gangster pictures.

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Filed under 3 stars, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Film Review, Gangsters/Crime, Uncategorized

Theatrical and Video History of The Star Wars Trilogy…for beginners

This began as a simple bit of information I started putting together for those who asked. Then I quickly realized that I should reshape it to provide a nice information source for beginners and those new to the ongoing saga of trying to recover the original unaltered trilogy.

Abbreviations defined: SW-Star Wars, ESB-Empire Strikes Back, ROTJ-Return of the Jedi

 

The quick..or maybe not so quick rundown on Star Wars:

The original feature was primarily shown in Eastman 35mm, and is a bit contrasty and very grainy due to the heavy number of effects shots combined with both the 70’s stock used and heavy reprinting. The reissue in 1981 and some later ones generated LPP prints which are far more stable overall and better present the film as it was shot.

A handful, and I mean very few prints were struck in the UK using Technicolor’s IB three strip dye transfer process. These are absolutely breathtaking, and have much deeper levels and color saturations overall. The grain is lessened resulting in a much finer and completely more “filmic” image that is both warm and more pleasing to the eye. These were only done in the UK as the US labs had stopped after Godfather II in 1974, and SW was the last done at the UK labs. Also, due to the nature of the process no two prints in IB were ever exactly alike and the different labs made different aesthetic choices. The UK lab was generally more prone to favoring color range and a colder look, while the US was much more vivid and gained the moniker of “Technicolor red” etc. on their bolder looking prints.

All these got the 35mm Dolby stereo mix on the analog track, which was of course the film to break it to the masses. It plays very well matrixed out as designed. Some received the 35mm mono mix, discussed below.

The 70mm blowups were limited engagements and premieres. All these were Eastman and blown up to large format-cropped to 2.21:1. The 6 track magnetic audio for 70mm was converted to Dolby’s new process of taking the front Left-Center and Right-Center speakers and making them “baby booms” to accentuate and only playback the low end and in the process essentially creating the first .1 in any system. This is why people talk about the low rumble of the opening Star Destroyer or of nearby stores having their windows blown out. The 70mm mix from all we know is identical in content to the 35mm Dolby Stereo, but discretely presented without the constraints of matrixing and with the improved low end reproduction.

Last was the 35mm Academy mono mix, done by George Lucas and Ben Burtt while the 70mmm premieres were going on. This was intended as the definitive final mix, as it was believed that no one would adopt Dolby, and that the film would not be successful. So they put a large amount of effort into making the mono definitive, placing all sorts of tweaks, fixes to gaffes and mistakes etc. so that the film could play in the middle of nowhere or at a drive-in and work properly.

16mm prints stuck either have the mono or a folddown of the stereo mix. They come in a mix of cropped flat prints or scope ones.

ESB had a few variations in the 70mm premiere cut, but was conformed to the 35mm general release. Audio mix is largely identical for 35mm and 70mm but some reported a few things which turned up in the 16mm mono custom mix. The mono again has numerous tweaks and differences. The main 35/70 mix is largely stereo oriented and has less information going on in the center/surround. This was done so that in case the extra channels or matrix went out, the audience could still get a great experience in plain stereo without missing anything essential.

ROTJ should be identical in 35 and 70 for audio but there is no hard evidence as of yet. It is unknown whether there is a custom mono track.

In 1981 the Ep. IV A NEW HOPE title was added to the opening crawl and has been on everything released since.

Now..we get to video.

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JSC-Japanese Special Collection. In 1985, the Japanese Special Collection Laserdiscs were released. This was the first widescreen release of the trilogy and all feature Dolby surround matrix PCM audio. All have good color and detail and were reputedly from good interpositives. ESB and ROTJ’s audio seem to be the theatrical mixes, but SW got a custom remix from Ben Burtt which took the ’77 theatrical stereo and reduced the dynamic range along with cutting back on the high end. It also adds 3P0’s tractor beam line from the mono audio. They are full CAV format with the 1985 home video remixes in Dolby surround PCM. Note: they do have hardcoded Japanese subtitles in the letterboxing.

SWE-Fox Special Widescreen Laserdiscs released in 1989-1991. These are ports of the JSC and were the first major widescreen release in the US. Their audio is also the 1985 remix, but appears to be better encoded than the JSC. Due to an error, Star Wars has a shrinking aspect ratio that isn’t terribly noticeable. This was corrected in a later limited pressing just before the Definitive Collection.

When ported to LD stateside, they had to crop the Japanese subtitles from the bottom letterbox. On SW they goofed and the image ratio actually shrinks very slightly across the feature. When notified they quietly fixed it in 1993 and reissued it.  One of these hard to find corrected pressings was issued by the smaller Technidisc plant. For some unknown reason they made their own transfer and did not simply reissue the old one corrected. Their source is superior and produced the best official release of Star Wars on home video to date. Unfortunately the disc suffers from some crosstalk issues and is CLV only. That said it is absolutely worth searching out if you have a good player. Note: the only way to find one is by identifying the disc stamper codes on the inner ring.

Note: All video copies across formats were sourced from this master until the Definitive Collection in 1993.

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Definitive Collection: This set was done in 1993 for Laserdisc. All three films in full CAV fully remastered with extras. Only downside is that this was done by state of the art technology…circa 1993. These were struck from Interpositives that may have been a bit faded. In any case they are nearly drained of color and that is nowhere near the end of their problems. Grain was smoothed out by early processes-particularly an early form of DNR which also results in horrible motion smearing artifacts. Additionally the sound was remixed on all three and features both new and missing effects. It is presented in PCM Dolby surround, but information suggests that the source for SW was in fact the fabled 70mm Dolby mix. And they suffer from heavy rotting across pressings. The first copy had to be recalled for cutting a few seconds of Leia welding onboard the Falcon in ESB.

Faces-Reissues of the Definitive, with the covers featuring the faces of Vader, Stormtrooper and Yoda. They are CLV copies without any rot issues. Later copies pressed by Kuraray may have been encoded for SuperNTSC video.

Note: All video copies from 1993 to the 1997 Special Edition were from the Definitive across formats.

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SE-Special Edition. The 1997 SE came from a photochemical restoration and then additional CGI effects were done at 1K and 2K. SW was intended to match Lucas’s own Tech IB print. The audio remixes were very dynamic and matched the intent of the original mixes. They went to the master tapes and remixed in elements from some of the mono tracks as well. The eventual VHS and LD releases though had several fluctuations and do not fully represent the 35mm prints made. They are on the whole very good and have better color than the Definitive master. But they do have some DNR and edge enhancement. Also SW has many of the Tatooine sequences pink shifted in the telecine. The sound mix was a fresh remix done in both 2.0 and 5.1 from the original elements and adding differentiations from the monos. Only issued on LD and VHS.

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In 2004 a 1080p master was stuck from the 97 SE and then completely destroyed by apparently some who either were unknowing of the eventual result or who simply did not care. It appears that many hands were on deck but the transfer wasn’t given the care and treatment it truly deserved. The process was reportedly not the most refined or properly timed, but numerous changes were implemented across all three that virtually wreck the films. Even further changes were made for the DVD issue, and the matrixed 6.1 audio is a horrendous reworking of the otherwise perfect 97 mixes.

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The 2006 “original edition” bonus DVD release was merely a copy of the Definitive collection LD master. So the video quality was better than LD but still stuck in that era. Additionally it was non-anamorphic letterbox and the remixed audio was heavily compressed to DVD standard Dolby Digital 2.0. However, someone did go back and scan the original SW crawl minus the ANH title and insert it into the DVD. How or why this occurred is anyone’s guess.

This became known as the GOUT or “George’s Official Unaltered Trilogy”.

Later HDTV airings began appearing using higher res versions of the 1080p scan. The reveal even more flaws of the 2004 work.

The 2011 Blu-rays use this same master, but with EVEN MORE changes, alterations and general mucking about, in addition to ruining the audio even further. They are slightly better than the previous DVD/HDTV in terms of proper contrast/saturation levels in some ways but then just as bad if not worse in others.

 

So there you have it. If you are to enjoy the films at all officially…buy a Laserdisc player or go back in time. Dead serious.

If so inclined the Fox SWEs are dirt cheap and can be had for a few bucks each. The 1985 mixes are largely great and very close if not largely identical to the original theatrical stereo matrix counterparts.

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The Quiet American (2002)

A lovely and striking homage to the 1999 Flame Girl advance poster for The World is Not Enough.

A lovely and striking homage to the 1999 Flame Girl advance poster for The World is Not Enough.

4 stars out of 4. One of the best films released since the new millennium.

Great novels rarely translate to the screen well. It is usually only done in a way that gives an audience an impression of the original points being made, or by merely replicating the book scene for scene. It is the rare exception that makes for a moving film adaptation of a moving novel. But it is the truly exceptional picture that serves to accentuate, enhance and truly enlighten a great work of literature and at the same time enlighten some part of our nearly incomprehensible world. In this 2002 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, director Phillip Noyce is finally able to build upon the promise shown in feature after feature throughout his tenure at the major studios in the 1990’s.

It is not an easy film because it is not an easy story total. Greene wrote often of the erosion of man’s soul, typically from man’s own inherent weaknesses and frailties. This vision is set against the backdrop of Vietnam in the early 1950’s as the Communists waged a bitter war against the French for the nation’s independence. An aging British expatriate reporter named of Fowler reports the news in his own detached way by neither taking a side nor involving himself in much of anything besides his young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, who may or may not be the key to his heart still beating. Into this routine comes a white washed slightly bumbling American by the name of Pyle. Pyle becomes attached to Phuong and falls in love with her much to the concern of Fowler. This love triangle plays out against the festering conflict surrounding Saigon. Pyle is ostensibly part of an American medical team providing aid to the impoverished, but as the underlying natures of America’s political machinations in foreign non-democratic nations becomes apparent in Vietnam, Pyle may not be exactly what he seems.

Greene wrote this novel based upon his own experiences as a reporter in 50’s Saigon. It is partially autobiographical and completely from Greene’s detached, distrustful and deeply moving point of view. His cynicism and Fowler’s are one and the same, much as he and Fowler are the same. Pyle in the novel is less of a character than a catalyst and physical representation of all that Greene hated and mistrusted about America. What this film so masterfully does is weave a greater narrative sense into Greene’s story and allow the pages to breathe onscreen as in life so that the author’s original point is allowed to work freely through real flesh and blood characters.

This is no more apparent than in Michael Caine’s performance as Fowler. As always Caine readily inhabits his character in order to blur the lines between fiction and a feeling of impassioned reality. But as Fowler he adds an inherent degree of sadness that so completely adds that last necessary punctuation to Greene’s characterization. Caine’s Fowler is a woefully incomplete man who has come to some sort of terms that he is roughly an empty shell. His love for Phuong provides physical and emotional outlets for whatever remains of his drive and passion for life but it is again something that he cannot explain or define. He knows that she has become his whole existence, but in trying to explain this bond its very permanence would be destroyed. This deep set knowledge lies at the heart of Fowler’s sadness and leaves a lasting impression of finality in Caine’s eyes in every scene of the film.

Contrasted is Brendan Fraser’s performance as the titular American Pyle. Known and typed as the stud-ish B or C actioner and plagued by far too many dumb comedies, Fraser here uses his typical physical aloofness to an innate advantage as the outsider. His love for Phuong may be one element of humanity, but the rest of everything we see takes a backseat to his real reason for being in Vietnam. The outer appearance of an all-American is merely a front to the more devious operative beneath who allows the outer shell to blind him to what his actions will and are causing.

The meddling of the United States in overseas affairs during this era has never and will never be fully understood as much of it is still so secretive. In Vietnam, Pyle represents the formulation of a third front to challenge and supplant both the French and Communist forces by arming, training and supplying a separate faction under the leadership of a rogue commander. By playing these sides against one another the death toll rises with disastrous results. The fact that we began with a simple love triangle adds a governing layer to this revealed story so that the central conflict is human at its core and between two ever so different people.

To tell such a rich, languorous, dark and relatively true story in this day and age takes much guts. It takes even more to get someone to back it, let alone finance a faithful adaptation of a Greene novel. This project kicked around for years without gaining much traction, and had already been filmed in1958 as a disastrously butchered pro-American propagandist piece of garbage publicly denounced by Greene. After many years of attempts, Noyce became attached and brought his usual rounded efforts to create the picture he had had in him for many years. Throughout middling action-thrillers like Patriot Games and The Saint, Noyce had always shown a remarkable level of control and precision. He made thinking man’s thrillers that while never as developed narratively as they could have been, were so well made and properly told that you didn’t care as much as you should have. Here, he faithfully represents what Green wrote on the page by filming on primary location in Saigon and attempting to rightly place that mystical sense of atmosphere found only on the edge of war.

In a time where so much importance is being placed upon immediacy and a lack of technique, to see such careful and meticulous attention to construction, design and character is much like the feeling one gets while ill the moment a hot bowl of soup arrives. It is a genuine breath of fresh air and easily one of the best pictures to be released post 2000.

It almost wasn’t released at all. At Caine and Noyce’s repeated insistence, Mirimax finally allowed some festival showings and a limited 2002 release for Oscar consideration. They sat on it for some time, thinking that audiences would not react well to it in aftermath of September 2001. For box office this was correct reasoning, but it did not mean that they should roughly abandon the picture in its eventual 2002-2003 release or in its Oscar campaign. Caine gives one of his finest performances and arguably if not certainly should have finally won the golden statuette. But due to Mirimax not even deigning to send screeners to many voters, few ever saw the film neither in the Academy nor in the US theatrically. The film died a very early death and was sorely forgotten much too quickly.

EDIIONS: The DVD is fin, with a decent 16:9 transfer for its time. A few extras are included, the best being a commentary with Caine, Noyce and others. The sound is in both Dolby and DTS 5.1 with the DTS as always being a bit more forceful. A Blu-ray was released in the UK that had a DTS-HDMA 5.1 lossless audio track, but a woefully poor video transfer that seemed to be an upscale of a very old master. There has been no word of a US Blu-ray release, and one is sorely needed to faithfully reproduce the look and feel of this remarkable film, shot by the same cinematographer as many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films.

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The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Whoa, I know how to write a screenplay now.

1.5 stars out of 4. Extremely Disappointing Godawful Mess That In Effect Gives Us The Finger.

Here is an sci-fi action film for the senses and not the mind. Unfortunately it isn’t really for the senses either. The Matrix pulled a Die Hard-like feat in making a smaller action film with no real fanfare become a worldwide phenomenon. This eagerly awaited sequel was filmed back to back with the third sequel, which was released six months later. What occurred over the four year gap between films is that the drive of the story evaporated.

I’ve found that the only way to accurately get across some of my extreme issues with this sequel is to go through the film chronologically, so that some of the frustration, confusion and sheer rising anger encountered can be adequately expressed. It shouldn’t be a bad film. The production value is high, and enough of a story is present in order to keep some semblance of a coherent narrative. However it is the indifference to this bare minimum necessary to maintain an audience’s attention span and other elements that makes Reloaded fail completely as both a movie to be enjoyed  and as a sequel to the first film. Instead of being along for the ride and a part of the action, we are left on the sidelines and told that we humans are just to stupid to understand the great events going on before our very mortal eyes.

Reloaded opens with the human resistance in deeper struggle with the machines. a secret meeting is held between crews inside the Matrix where it is revealed that a machine army is digging towards Zion, the last human city. The machines mean to end the war in one fell swoop and will reach the city in 72 hours. The crews must return to Zion, but Morpheus asks for one crew to stay behind so that they may have news of the Oracle. Neo, “The One” who was supposed to end the war and save humanity, still has no idea of what he is supposed to do. (How would anyone know?) One crew remains and the meeting is broken up by agents. Curiously this is preceded by Agent Smith giving Neo his earpiece and thanking him for setting Smith free. Wait, didn’t Smith get destroyed last time round?

The others return to Zion (giving no thought to the reappearance of Smith), giving us our first glimpse of the last human city in existence. A place that was only referred to briefly in the original film, the Zion that was built up in our imaginations of course does not exist. What we are presented is essentially just a giant cave with rooms connected to other caves. Oh, and there are some people around wearing rags and robes. At their home, everybody tries to get a little R&R, especially Neo & Trinity who seem to never be able to have their umm..conjugal visitations. This is because Neo is seen as a Christ-like figure who is besieged with request to bless and aid others in need.

Everyone continues talking about the impending machine attack and what the people should be told. This goes on for several scenes and no agreement is reached on whether to lie, water down the truth, or admit that an army is coming. We then focus on the secondary character of the new computer operator, Link, and his wife who is angry with him serving in the ship that killed her brothers and being in danger. Ooookay, was that really necessary to explore?

That night, a meeting is held to explain what is going to happen to Zion. Neo and Trinity sneak off to have that visit. Without any hesitation, Morpheus stands before everyone and brazenly shouts that the machines are coming to kill them all (in a highly but unintentionally funny over the top performance), and that things look bleak, but that they will make a lot of noise. Oh, I mean something more like: “WE ARE ALL GOING TO PROBABLY DIE, SO INSTEAD OF PREPARING OR GETTING READY FOR THE FINAL BATTLE OF OUR LIVES, LET’S HAVE A MASSIVE SLOW-MOTION RAVE AND GROPE EACH OTHER TO TECHNO!!!” This terrible and completely stupid scene lasts for a good four minutes and is inter-cut with Neo and Trinity’s lovemaking. After you’ve winced for this entire sequence, as we all did in the theater, the movie decides to finally continue with those still in the Matrix trying to get word back to Morpheus that the Oracle wants to meet. Unfortunately the last man is captured by Smith who uses his new-found power to copy himself so that Smith is then extracted into the real world via the telephone. Wait, how does that work?

Neo finds and has to fight the Oracle’s bodyguard, Seraph. Then he is led to his meeting with the Oracle, who engages in a completely nonsensical dialogue with Neo for about five minutes before finally relaying Neo’s new objective. He must retrieve the Keymaker from the Merovingian in order to reach the Source where the path of the One ends. (“Are you the keymaster?“) And of course this makes little to no sense, but at least it’s something for us to go on. The Oracle then leaves and Smith appears. He explains that when Neo destroyed him that he was supposed to go off to be destroyed like other dead programs. But he simply didn’t want to. Okay, if that’s true then why isn’t there a fail-safe in the Matrix to prevent this, and how does this make Smith seemingly invulnerable and able to copy himself? Smith essentially says has no purpose and tries to copy Neo. This does not work, and a fight ensues. It starts well, and continues. Starting to get a bit stale, more Smith clones appear. Getting more stale, more clones appear. Finally a small army of Smith clones appear, and Neo flies away. Throughout this fight, things turn into complete computer animation which absolutely destroys any and all sense of this being a real conflict. The addition of a computer animated Neo simply does not work and undoes the fight entirely. Not that it wasn’t getting stale anyway. (Oh, and isn’t it funny how some of the Smith clones have a different face in the longer shots?)

Two crews volunteer to aid Morpheus’s crew in the hopes of proving the prophecy of the One while the rest prepare for the machines’ assault. Morpheus, trinity and Neo then enter into the film’s only truly interesting scene where they meet with the Merovingian. The Frenchman is a dealer in information, an older program who lords over his power and underlings like a classic-era Warner Bros. villain. Here is a fully realized character who draws out every last syllable as if it were a fine wine. His actions are all meticulously plotted, even a tryst with an attractive woman is wonderfully overdone with a cleverly disguised dessert that triggers an overpowering orgasm.

He of course refuses to give them the Keymaker, and adds that they have nothing to give him in return. They are then led to the Keymaker by his frustrated wife who does this service in exchange for a kiss from Neo-a kiss that must be performed as if he were kissing Trinity. Ah, actual interest and development in a scene arises! She gives them the Keymaker, which royally pisses off her husband. (Hey look, Brides of Dracula! A much better movie!) He sends his goons to retrieve the Keymaker and Neo fends them off. He stops them after a fight that goes on far too long with an obvious conclusion, and the Merovingian escapes to sadly never again appear in this series, save for a essentially pointless cameo.

Trinity and Morpheus are pursued by the Merovingian’s twin ghost boys who are seemingly invulnerable. They are forced to take the only available exit. It happens to be located on the freeway. This is built up as a very bad idea, and thus we have an example of that almost obligatory part of an action film: the car chase.

This is the one section of the film people point to to explain away the film’s problems. As long as there’s a big long action sequence, it must be good right? The slow motion bullet time is used frequently which immediately ruins any and all of the tension that has been built up in the chase thus far. Agents join in the chase to further complicate matters. But for some odd reason “the exile is our primary target“. What? Why do they care about an old program? Shouldn’t they be going after the human resistance? Why does this make sense? Why do I keep asking all of these rhetorical questions? I’m never going to be answered by the movie.

This scene progresses as if the filmmakers had gone to the John Woo school of directing, but Woo’s deep connection to the emotional subtext and character is sorely lacking. You continually come to realization that this entire sequence is designed around a single idea: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” Cool. Cool is not a word with which one should design a film or storyline. Cool can be used in coming up with a situation or snake pit for action films. Cool should be used in conjunction with imagination in order to further enhance the impact of the story. The car chase fails miserably in maintaining story and tension. It becomes a lifeless video game level instead of a hair raising car chase where we are worried about these characters or what happens to the Keymaker. At this point, we still don’t even know who this little guy is!

Neo flies in to grab everyone and they adjourn to find out just what they need to do. The Keymaker tells them of a secret floor in a building that will give them access to Source entrance. They will need to shut down the power at two different locations in order to start a five minute window to get through the door to the Source. Neo must go alone into the unknown. One team goes in and completes their objective, with the other team’s ship destroyed by machines before their station can be destroyed. Thus, Trinity unbeknownst to Neo (who asked her to stay out of the Matrix because he has continual nightmares of her death) goes into destroy the station so that Neo can complete his mission. An Agent appears and they do battle.

Neo, Morpheus and the Keymaker are confronted by Smith in front of the door to the Source. (How did he get there?) he attacks with his clones and Neo manages to get the others into the doorway, but the Keymaker is fatally shot. He tells Neo which door to go through and tells Morpheus which door will lead him out of the Matrix. (So Morpheus was here for no reason. Good.) Neo goes through the doorway and gets to the point in the film and franchise where it all started to go completely downhill…

Neo meets a man sitting in an office chair in an empty room amidst dozens of TV screens plastered with his face. This is the Architect. The designer of the Matrix begins to spill the beans to Neo as to what is going on and what The One’s true objective is. There is much too much mumbo jumbo surrounding the few nuggets of truth, so the audience must again spend this time trying to slough through the crap to get to the meaning of what is being discussed. And the Architect begins by saying that Neo (and in reference, us as well) will only understand some of what is being said. That’s a great way to get us all off your backs, just say that we won’t understand what is going on!!!

Finally the Architect relays to Neo that the path of the One is really just another machine setup. It was found a necessary evil in order to keep all of the humans peaceable inside the Matrix and in subservience.  The One must put his special code inside the machine source and reset things. Zion will be destroyed along with all of its inhabitants, and the One will start a new Zion with a selected small group of humans. (Dr. Strangelove’s mine shaft anyone?) Neo is the sixth “One” thus far and Zion has already been destroyed five times. Neo is now presented with a “choice”. If he returns to the Matrix, then all those plugged into he Matrix will be killed and Zion destroyed.  If he goes to the source as directed, humanity will be saved from complete annihilation. Not much of a choice there is it?

The One is programmed with a deep connection to other humans and thus is supposed to be inclined towards performing his tasked duty. But Neo is primarily connected to Trinity, who is being killed by an Agent just as in his nightmares. So, Neo goes after her and dooms all humanity to destruction. A climax is quickly forced, where Trinity dies, Neo revives her, Neo only partially reveals the plot to the others, the ship is attacked and destroyed by Sentinels, they barely get away, and Neo suddenly realizes he has become awesome outside of the Matrix. He stops several Sentinels with his mind and promptly falls unconscious. The crew is picked up by another ship who has a crewman in the sickbay in a coma like Neo. Of course the crewman is the same one who was infected by Smith.

TO BE CONTINUED

Seriously, who ends a film with a silly “to be continued” card? This is not a TV episode or a cliffhanger of a serial. It’s a silly cliffhanger simply meant to bring people back in six months later. And the sequel is really the same film going on for 129 minutes longer. But with all of the really bad parts.

The ending of Reloaded makes little to no real sense. Neo has killed everyone already, so what is the use of Trinity surviving? Oh wait, the killing of everyone connected to the Matrix is never mentioned again, and absolutely no one is ever informed of what the Architect told Neo. So basically this has all become just a setup for the final assault on Zion. So much for leverage.

They had to bring things to a quick climax so how would you write the crew getting away on foot from the Sentinels? Oh yeah, Neo now has his magic powers in the real world! Wait, that makes ABSOLUTELY NO FREAKING SENSE IN ANY CONTEXT! (Sighs.) I still cannot tell if this is just lazy writing or if we were meant to take this seriously. Why would Neo be powerful outside the Matrix? The entire premise of this series was that the humans only could gain a partial semi-advantage via hacking into the system of the Matrix. To have him just as powerful outside ruins any dramatic context previously established and guts the film of any tension or interest that could possibly be left.

And then to have Neo in the same ship as the Smith-man, who just happens to also be in a coma is beyond coincidence. He’s not going to do something bad now is he?

The problem I have with this film, and its much inferior sequel is that all of the spunk present in the first film is completely gone. With the increased budget and success came a lifelessness to the Matrix universe. That spark that said, “screw it, let’s end the movie with Rage Against the Machine and Neo flying into the camera” is nowhere to be found. In addition the characters become one dimensional and over the course of Reloaded we cease to care a damn bit about them. Some fans of Star Wars have claimed that as soon as the sequels arrived the magic of a vast unknown universe was somewhat dissipated. That may be debatable, but it is absolutely true as far as the Matrix franchise is concerned. With each proceeding minute of this 4 1/2  hour snoozefest (both sequels put together) you feel all of the enjoyment and love you had for the first film get put through the wringer. If you have any love left for the franchise after sitting through both sequels, then hats off to you. I thought I didn’t and stayed away ever since the theatrical release.

This isn’t even going into the fact that the plot has no tension or definite meaning. Heck, there isn’t even a point to the mess. Reloadedis big, sprawling and unsteady. It’s as if this is a big lumbering ship lost at sea with no one at the helm to control the madness. For all those who claim this to be a decent movie, I challenge you: When was the last time you actually sat down and watched this mess? Especially right  after the first film, which is a first class operatic masterwork in every way compared to this junk. The first film has passion, energy, characters with definite motivations, a fully realized opposing force with impressive agents in its service, pacing, and an actual screenplay that combines all of these elements into a highly entertaining and more simply put it: a great movie.

I found myself becoming increasingly angry at Reloaded while reviewing the DVD after all this time. It must be constructed in a way as to provide the maximum amount of confusion and frustration to the viewer. Not only does the film contradict itself numerous times, but it does so in such a mindbogglingly uninteresting way that you cease to really care at all.

EDITIONS: The DVD issue was and still is quite impressive. 16:9 anamorphic 2.35:1 image that looks spotless for the format and age, involving 5.1 Dolby mix that resembles the theatrical presentation, and a bevy of extras on a second disc. This was pretty much reissued untouched for the Ultimate boxset, and a the HD master struck for that DVD box was rolled over to  HD-DVD with a Dolby True-HD 5.1 soundmix. This was simply ported over to Blu-ray. (All of this much like Warner’s practices, akin to their treatment of the Batman series on video.)

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Filed under 1.5 stars, Film Review, The Matrix, Uncategorized

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

1 star out of 4.

Kharis rises again to wreak havoc in New England and return his Ananka and her relics to Egypt. This is merely an exercise in rehashing the elements of The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. Nothing really new is presented at least on the surface. Other than the role of another new Egyptian priest being filled by the scenery chewing John Carradine, only the oddly dark ending gives one reason to watch this increasingly monotonous entry in the ever awful Kharis cycle.

The problems are too numerous to really mention. The film roughly takes place in the year 1974 if the laughable continuity of these films is ever to be taken seriously. Yet again, we start a mummy film by wasting time with a recap of the original films’ stories all badly snipped together and only hinting at the greatness of the Karloff original.  This retelling is simultaneously told by the Egyptian priest Andoheb (who is somehow miraculously still alive after dying twice! First shot dead at point blank range in Mummy’s Hand, and then dying of extreme old age in Mummy’s Tomb-scientists must have a lot to learn from this crazy loon.) to new underling Yousef Bey (John Carradine) and the same tale is being told by American Professor Norman at a University in the same small village where Kharis terrorized in The Mummy’s Tomb. Coincidence? Unfortunately no.

Yousef Bey is challenged with traveling to America with Kharis, reclaiming the mummy and possessions of Princess Ananka, and destroying all those who would invoke their wrath. Really? Couldn’t we have changed the general plan up a bit? It isn’t as if you haven’t tried that one before. Back at the University, a student leaves the lecture and visits his girlfriend working in a nearby office. Amina becomes reticent and distant whenever Egypt is mentioned and demands they never speak of it.

That night, Professor Norman finally discovers how many tana leaves must be brewed to complete the ritual he has been attempting to crack. He brews the nine leaves and Kharis begins to stir to find the mystical brew. As he passes Amina’s house she begins to sleepwalk towards the Professor’s home as well. Kharis kills the Professor and drinks the fluid. Amina loses consciousness at the sight of the Mummy. She is found the next morning on the grounds by the police who want to hold her as a potential suspect. No one seems to notice the large white streak in her hair…

The mold left on the Professor’s throat alerts authorities that the Mummy is on the loose again. (Not that they seem to really care all too much. Wouldn’t you?) Some time passes until Yousef Bey arrives and obtains Kharis. What happens in the interim is unexplained. Oh, there’s just an undead Mummy running around. They break into the Scripps museum where Ananka is housed. As Kharis moves to retrieve the mummy, it collapses into dust at his undead hands. Stupified, Kharis looks to Yousef who realizes that her soul has passed on into another body. In one of the only moments of acting in any of these Kharis films, the Mummy destroys the room in rage. A hapless guard is attracted by the noise and quickly dispatched by the monstrous Egyptian.

The police find the dead guard and destroyed museum the next morning. They determine it is also the work of the mummy and devise a trap for him. Amina is strained by the Professor’s death and her possible implication. Her boyfriend Tom persuades her to elope with him to New York. Now Yousef prays to the gods to show Kharis the way to Ananka’s reincarnated form. A shaft of light appears and Kharis is hot on the trail. (Well, as fast as an undead shuffling mummy can be following a non-existent light beam.)

The police have dug a pit outside the Professor’s home and brew tana leaves to lure the mummy. Unfortunately, this also once again awakens Amina into sleepwalking. She has the further misfortune of running into Kharis who recognizes Ananka’s reincarnation. Kharis returns her to Yousef at an abandoned mill. Tom is told of this by the helpless landlady and sets off in pursuit with the police far behind. Yousef tells Amina that she is the reincarnated spirit of Ananka. He then decides that he must have her for himself, and like every single other Egyptian priest suddenly realizes his primal manly urges by trying to make both himself and the female victim immortal.

In the only other bit of acting, Kharis realizes Yousef’s intention and kills him. This is almost as if Kharis come to this realization and declares: “Hell, no! Not this stinking crap again! Bitch, I am not being set on fire!” He then carries Amina off into the swamps with Tom and the police at his heels. The pursuers refrain from shooting the monster in fears of hitting the girl…who is getting a rather quick hair bleaching. The Mummy sinks into the swamps with her withered old corpse.

This ending is a curveball when considering everything else that has transpired up to this point. There is no indication that the ending will be dark, and thus it doesn’t fit the film whatsoever. It is a completely unnecessary moment that despite its shock does not have the power to redeem this schlock. The performances are forgettable save for Carradine’s mad Egyptian. He chews scenery as if it was his mandate, and gives a slightly more interesting face to look at then yet another bland young fez-wearing Egyptian.

Lon Chaney Jr. famously hated playing the Mummy. His disdain is obvious for he shuffles along doing absolutely nothing. Although, he wasn’t really ever made to do much of anything else. Chaney does show some emotion in a few scenes as I’ve mentioned, but it just isn’t enough. Christopher Lee was able to do so much with only his eyes in the Hammer 1959 Mummy film that it seems like a Mummy acting masterclass after watching all of these Universal Kharis films.

Save for a few choice moments with Carradine and the ill-fitting ending, The Mummy’s Ghost is an absolutely forgettable piece of double bill filler.

Like all the other Kharis films, Mummy’s Ghost is packaged in the Mummy Legacy Collection in a well presented single-layer transfer. Sound is standard Dolby 2.0 mono and the print source is very clean.

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Filed under 1 star, Film, Uncategorized, Universal Horror

R.E.M.-Chronic Town (1982)

Immortal EP-5 out of 5 stars

Ahh..here we go. This is an EP which took everything that was established in music…and simply threw it out the window. This is just a recording of four guys who decided, “hey what the heck let’s do what we want” with all the reckless abandon of a record store clerk. (Oh wait, Peter Buck was one. Go figure. 😉

What Chronic Town does so well is convey this sense of dreamlike mesmerism. Although the band name was just picked at random out of a dictionary, it fits like nothing else could. Sure, at this point R.E.M. was playing anywhere they could and earning all of the wondrous perks of constant low-end touring, but their early recordings have this odd dichotomy between jangling, punchy rhythms and almost a hibernation trance. It’s as if we’re all falling into REM sleep while listening to these records. Or maybe I’ve just put way too much thought into these things and should shut up and review the record.

For the record: I don’t claim to understand or know what Michael Stipe is meaning or saying. It’s just better that way. Don’t try it otherwise, you’ll end up missing the song and making your head hurt.

(Side 1) CHRONIC TOWN:If the opening of “Wolves, Lower” doesn’t grab you in any way…then I have no hope for you at all. “Gardening at Night” has an almost detached feeling, as the vocals have a slight echo which further displaces them from the punchy instrumental. (I think I might like the different vocal mix a bit more.) “Carnival of Sorts” is a semi-ode to hoboes jumping boxcars. And for some reason you kinda want to dance about.

(Side 2) POSTER TORN: “1,000,000” features more unintelligbleisms with the repeated refrain “I could live a million years” jumping out at the ears as the only really clear line you can make out. “Stumble” is about stumbling through the yard….and teeth…sorta.

In essence what you hold in your hands is the band discovering recording, the studio and its uses, effects, and in a sense what their recorded output should or would be. Here they were free to experiment and discover exactly what they wanted to do on a record. So they stumbled through the yard some more. The hiss at the opening of “Wolves” is mirrored by the hiss at the end of “Stumble” so that your journey is circular and you end where you began with maybe some further glimpse into what the hell it all means. Or not.

Doesn't Peter look nice and creepy?

Note: never try to clarify early period R.E.M. lyrics with internet searches. You spend your time either laughing or being pissed at what people come up with.

EDITIONS: you get a choice between CD, Cassette and LP. I first heard the cassette after picking it up in a cheapy bin. And let’s move on because if there’s anything I hate it’s bad EQ’d tapes….the CD edition is contained on the CD release of Dead Letter Office. And while it may be the easiest way to obtain these tracks, you get no CT artwork and lose all of the punchiness and depth that makes this recording so special. Skip it.

So…moving on to LP. My favored copy is the original IRS label pressing. There were three versions, one is the very original with custom gargoyle labels and then the second more mass produced issue with just the standard silver IRS label. The third has no barcode on the back, IRS labels and is on regular black vinyl. The second one is what I have and they seem to be the same pressing, just different labels. The first two are pressed on translucent brown vinyl (Just hold it up to the light to see what I mean!). It may be Quiex vinyl, but no one’s ever confirmed it. However, it plays dead quiet and is one of the best sounding LPs I own. (Along with all the other IRS R.E.M. albums)

There was a new pressing for Record Store Day a few years back on clear blue vinyl. It’s a faithful reproduction, but both the artwork and sound lose detail from the original. It’s a nice collectible, but just save your $ and go for the original. (Check your local record shop or ebay, they usually turn up in the $10-15 range)

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Filed under Immortal albums, Music, Music Review, R.E.M., Uncategorized, Vinyl

R.E.M. When The Music’s Over: Part Lies, Part Truth, Part Heart, Part Garbage

Last Wednesday, R.E.M. officially stopped rem-ing.

http://remhq.com/news_story.php?id=1446

I’ve been inconsolable. Still am. This band has been my formulative soundtrack and a lifelong passion. I became a fan in my toddler years. I was in the front row for the Aneurysm 95 tour (AKA the Monster tour) and was plucked out by security to sit on the speakers. (At 4. Tell me I wasn’t hooked.) I had to fight to get into a venue at age 14 when I won a contest to see the band in Denver. I was just in Athens back in May for a surprise graduation present from my mom and actually got to go inside the hallowed grounds of Wuxtry Records and was even invited into the H.Q.!

For 31 years they pushed boundaries and always did exactly what they wanted to do. (No matter the consequences or sheer amount of goofiness.) And we all loved them for it. Can you really think of anyone else that carried on for so long doing what they wanted and still remaining humble?

Now what do we do? It’s still impossible to believe that it’s actually over. Obviously things have run their natural course, but I always had a little thought of the guys sticking together over the years and out doing the Stones in the “longest lasting band” category. There was never any place in time where I even remotely considered the possibility of there being no R.E.M.

I just feel that there was more out there to explore and that the now final album, Collapse Into Now, wasn’t truly the end. I just hope that it was truly the band’s decision to end and that there were no pressures from WB to end their contract. (Anybody like the idea of R.E.M. going back to an indie label and doing their own thing In Rainbows style? That’s what I thought might be next. ;(  )

The breakup has spawned many internet comments about the three legged dog years after Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. My question to these people is: “Did you ever actually listen to anything from Up onwards?” They never stopped trying to do more. They never had a “bad” record. Around the Sun got mauled by everyone, but it was just too overdone.

Not only has this spurred me to finally complete my vinyl 1st pressing collection of their records, but to finally write my big definitive critical/personal reviews of the back catalog. So be expecting a huge dump of posts that get very wordy…or murmured.

I started the journey again with Chronic Town. I didn’t even make it through “Wolves, Lower” before breaking down. I played Murmur 30 times. Ugh!

There’s a retrospective compilation due out later this year that spans the band’s entire career (Both IRS and Warner eras).

http://remhq.com/news_story.php?id=1451

The tracklisting leaves much to be desired, as such an influential and definitive American band could never be summed onto two CDs. Of course, most like myself will simply buy the set for the 3 Collapse Into Now demos.

Ok…I have to say it…..I’m done with music from now on. Period. Game. Set. Match. My spiritual brothers in music, people who I have spent my life listening to-thinking of-reflecting on-supporting, the music that formed my consciousness and is forever fully embedded in my psyche is now formally over.

I still can’t believe it.

To Peter, Mike, Michael, Bill and all the musicians and staff  for changing the face of music and culture as we knew it. For 31 years. That’s some kind of legacy.

To me, the most magical words in music will always be the credit: Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe….oh and maybe Cans of Piss. 😉

“God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.” -Kurt Cobain on R.E.M. (Rolling Stone interview, 1994)

EDIT: There’s a new interview with Mike Mills on RollingStone.com about the whys of the band breaking up. It’s nice to see a amicable consensus and no label worries but it still doesn’t make it hurt any less.

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/blogs/alternate-take/exclusive-why-r-e-m-are-calling-it-quits-20110926

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