Monday, July 18, 2011

Yes! Finally, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS coming to DVD/BLU-RAY!

Erle C. Kenton's pre-code, classic adaptation of H.G. Wells' ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU is getting the deluxe Criterion treatment!  Previously only issued by Universal (who owns some early Paramount titles) on VHS and Laser Disc, LOST SOULS still delivers creeps and chills with an unforgettable performance by Charles Laughton.  It's good to see the involvement of film scholar Greg Mank!  One of the few truly knowledgeable but humble film historians (check out his excellent books!) who doesn't assault us with the usual barrage of wacky personal/revisionist opinions that mar most contemporary  film scholarship!  For more information, visit Criterion:

Friday, July 15, 2011

CONAN THE BARBARIAN: The movie tie-in novel lives!

Novelizations based on movie screenplays have a long literary/cinematic tradition and it's extra cool when action or horror movies are turned into books.  Having read all the Robert E. Howard Conan tales, I was eager to read this book to see where the new movie is coming from.  I was never really satisfied with John Milius's CONAN (1982) and I didn't buy Schwarzenegger as the barbarian but I thought it was an earnest first attempt.  The new story reads as a much gentler teen-girl friendly, romantic sword and sorcery, Harry Potter-ish take on Howard's savage Cimmerian.  Of course, that's no guarantee of how the film will come off.  I want the new Conan 3D to be good but let's just say I have my doubts after reading the 2D book.  My biggest gripe with the new story and most superhero movies in general is the insistence of presenting the character's back story.  Sometimes it may be necessary but there's no written rule that a film or story has to play out excruciatingly painfully in strict chronological order.  That's my main problem with the book.  We spend too much, not very exciting, quality time with the young Conan and are clubbed over the head with the concept that he was 'born on a battlefield.'   The genius of the Bond films and the first STAR WARS was that fresh approach of just dropping the viewer into mid-action and letting the viewer catch his/her breath.  All the traditional genre conventions are practically in our DNA by now.  We don't need that 'once upon a time' approach to everything.  Conan should remain mysterious with his past only hinted at when need be.  By depicting Darth Vader's dull childhood and adolescence, George Lucas reduced him from an instant iconic figure of metaphorical evil to just an asthmatic kid turned delinquent due to a troubled family life.  Vader used to be cool now he's just like the weird kid I grew up with down the block.  Rob Zombie did the same sad thing to Michael Myers (Oh, your dad has a foul mouth and your mom's a stripper who doesn't even take her clothes off so naturally you grow up to be a super human psycho killing machine!  That's deep s#$%!).  If you take the mythic character quality out of  Conan you're just left with a generic albeit well-written barbarian action story.  That's what's we're left with here. Nevertheless, I'll always welcome more movie tie-in novels! (Novelization by Michael A. Stackpole based on the screenplay.  Recommended for curious die-hard Conan freaks!)  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Most baby boomer monster kids who rabidly collect Universal Monster toys and merchandise have always had the sense that the Lugosi estate must be difficult to negotiate with.  A serious blow to the state of our pop culture is evidenced by the fine line of monster toys that regularly feature the iconic, unforgettable likenesses of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Sr., Lon Jr. and Glenn Strange but, unfortunately, usually feature a generic, non-Bela-looking Dracula.  (I usually skip over that one and wonder why they can't use Carradine's likeness instead?)  Well, now in a bizarre reversal, Bela Jr. is raiding the Universal coffers and licensing the all-new BELA LUGOSI as BROADWAY'S DRACULA?!  Though your very eyes may deceive you, this is the Broadway stage vampire not to be confused with the sound-stage, Universal City back lot version of the Transylvanian nobleman!  Yeah, right.  How would you ever know the difference if you didn't have the cumbersome packaging on hand to remind you?  Is it the purple cloak lining?  Does the figure break out crooning 'Lullaby of Broadway' and tap dance?  A light soft shoe shuffle at the very least?  Also, didn't Lugosi actually look different in the stage version as evidenced by the few surviving photos?
On the legit stage, Bela definitely wore a crazier, heavy eye and brow make up that doesn't appear on the new statue.  It will be interesting to see if Universal turns a blind eye to this situation.  I guess in some weird way, Bela Jr. is enacting some well-deserved, delayed revenge for the crummy way the Universal brass treated his dad back in the day!  Broadway Dracula proves once again that payback is a bitch and that there's always a new legal loophole to find if you look hard enough.
What's next?  An unfilmed Ed Wood's GHOUL GOES WEST hand puppet?  A Bela as Armand Tesla in-between-takes on RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE  paper dress up doll?  Perhaps, I can interest you in an OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE porcelain bust?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

SHAOLIN (2011- China/Hong Kong)
D: Benny Chan.  SHAOLIN is a massive widescreen epic set in 1920’s China.  Pop icon Andy Lau plays a powerful and paranoid warlord general who knocks off his key rival in a teahouse and ignites a massive bloodbath resulting in the death of his young daughter and the disintegration of his marriage.  To repent, Lau (really) crops his hair and joins the local Shaolin temple to journey the convoluted road to personal redemption.  While Lau immerses himself into the transcendental temple lifestyle, his former right hand thug (Nicholas Tse of Jackie Chan’s NEW POLICE STORY and ROBIN-B-HOOD) has usurped power and proves to be an even more ruthless dictator!  Ultimately, the two must face off with Lau committed to destroying (and then saving!) the monster he created even at the cost of his own life.

Visually impressive and packed with large scale battles and explosions (hopefully with CG enhanced horse stunts? Ouch!), the numerous kung fu fights are swift and brutal courtesy of veteran action director Cory Yuen (THE TRANSPORTER series among others!).  Of course, as requisite for any Shaolin tale, there are some cool training and philosophical bits to satisfy the old school fans.

Jackie Chan pops up in the film’s second act and injects comic relief as the kung fu ignorant temple chef.  He has a brief but fun fight scene where he is goaded on by some juvenile monks to apply his supreme cooking skills and techniques to combat multiple opponents- and it works!  Bingbing Fan (Andy Lau’s BATTLE OF THE WARRIORS) has the thankless role as the general’s wife who gets to cry a lot, is repeatedly beaten and nearly drowned.  As usual, the few Caucasian actors roped into portraying some British soldiers come off amateurish and ill costumed.  For a production of this size, they surely could have brought in some name western thespians?

SHAOLIN is overwhelming and impressive on the big screen with a suitably lush music score.  However, it will be interesting to see how it fares on the small monitor.  The over the top moralizing and melodramatic, tear-jerking moments start to wear thin as the film pushes the audiences’ capacity for compassion and tragedy to the brink and well over the cliff!   Although Lau gives an emotionally powerful performance, the film seems to take the position that even the most evil, heinous, mass murdering despot can repent and transform into a peace-loving, innocent soul with the eternal guilt of their past deeds as punishment enough.  Needless to say, the two-hour-plus film doesn’t convincingly exhaust the debate on that touchy issue.  Benny Chan’s previous credits include numerous Jackie Chan films such as NEW POLICE STORY (2004).  Screened in 35mm at the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival, Lincoln Center, NYC (7/2/11)