Category Archives: DVD reviews

‘Fear(s) of the Dark’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

Animation and horror would seem to be the sort of chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination that more folks had experimented with; the visual possibilities of strong animation work would give a creative horror-film director all sorts of provocative canvases to splatter blood all over. Yet it’s still relatively uncharted territory, perhaps because the most essential part of any horror film – even the most absurdly plotted horror film – is a sense of reality, the viewer’s feeling that the carnage going down onscreen could happen to them on the way to their car. For Fear(s) of the Dark, six renowned artists dispense with the notion of reality and emerge with a dark, evocative, and occasionally chilling anthology of animated horror that delivers on all the untapped potential of this relatively unexplored form. Although the six pieces here are distinct in visual style and execution (hehe), the thematic thread that runs throughout ties them together with a sense of doom that relies less on splatter than on spookiness.

‘Urgh! A Music War’ DVD feature review (Orlando Weekly)

It’s been a long time coming, but nearly 30 years after it was released to theaters, Urgh! A Music War is again available for purchase. For music fans of a certain age – especially those who have suffered from years of squinting at grainy VHS dubs and bootleg DVDs – its purchase is mandatory; Urgh! is the ultimate document of the post-punk movement known as “the New Wave” (not to be confused with the later, poppier genre generality of new wave).

Thanks to a pioneering initiative at Warner Bros. Pictures called the Warner Archive, in which films with limited retail appeal are sold on a duplicated-to-order basis, that purchase is just a few clicks away. Although Urgh! can’t be picked up at your local music shop or on Amazon, the archive’s online store (http://www.wbshop.com) offers a direct-to-your-door deal that gets you a DVD-R pressing of the movie made from reasonably clean prints for $20. And it’s official, which means that, hopefully, some of the 30-plus artists featured on the movie will see some of that money.

Urgh! was briefly sold in the ’80s on VHS tape and laserdisc, but neither of those versions stayed in print for long. It’s important to remember that, in the early and mid-’80s, home video libraries weren’t nearly as common as they are now; most videotapes were sold to video stores for rentals, while laserdiscs, though beloved by cinephiles, were never broadly embraced by the general public. So videos frequently fell out of print quickly after their first run. In the case of Urgh!, it probably didn’t help that the USA Network’s excellent Night Flight program seemed to play the film and various clips frequently, thus negating the need for anyone to actually purchase a high-priced former rental tape or track down the hard-to-find laserdisc.

In the 28 years that have passed since Urgh! was originally released, the film has taken on a legendary reputation, due to its content and its rarity. The relative ease with which the music was licensed for the original production was a natural facet of the late-’70s music business; nobody was considering cross-collateralization, digital download residuals or multiplatform hybridization. Producer Miles Copeland (founder of IRS Records, brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland) presented all of the artists with a fairly straightforward contract that permitted the use of their music and performances in Urgh!’s theatrical presentations and television broadcasts, and allowed for the initial home video versions as well as a double-LP soundtrack – which, sadly, remains out of print. Everything after those initial permissions would require every single artist – all 34 of them – to sign off on any new versions; thus, no CD of the soundtrack and, until now, no DVD of the movie. How Warner Archives got around those contracts is a mystery, but the fact that Urgh! is only available as a bespoke DVD – rather than in a full retail version – is probably reflective of the acres of red tape that have accumulated around it.

All those licensing issues, and all those memories of tracking down nth-generation copies, fades immediately upon popping in the Warner Archives DVD. The film itself hasn’t undergone any remastering process, but the print used for the transfer is suitably crisp, and the difference between this version and the unauthorized versions that have been traded for years is simply remarkable. More importantly, the Dolby stereo audio track provides a powerful and dynamic reproduction of the music.

Of course, the music is the entire point of Urgh! Filmed – not on video, but on film – at a multitude of concerts in various venues around the world in 1980, Urgh! features live performances from ’80s crossover stars Joan Jett, the Police, Devo, the Go-Go’s, Gary Numan (doing “Down in the Park” on an overwhelming stage setup) and Wall of Voodoo – all captured at the moment just before MTV made everyone tired of them. Beyond those marquee names, though, are the stars of the post-punk underground – Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cramps, Magazine, XTC (yes, live), Dead Kennedys, Surf Punks, Oingo Boingo, Chelsea (snarling through “I’m on Fire”), Pere Ubu, Gang of Four. Combine those well-known names with excellent, now-footnoted acts like the Members, Toyah Willcox, Skafish and Athletico Spizz 80 and the variety of music on display here – punk, post-punk, power pop, electro-pop, reggae, quirky new wave, a touch of postmodern weirdness and even spoken word – is simply staggering. There’s not a single performance on Urgh! that’s less than impressive: The Cramps’ blistering take on “Tear It Up,” Echo’s fiery, angsty version of “The Puppet,” Klaus Nomi’s legendarily operatic “Total Eclipse” and the Police’s taut and terrific runthrough of “So Lonely” are essential watching.

While some viewers might complain that the Warner Archives version doesn’t allow skipping right to those moments (you can only skip through in 10-minute intervals, not by indexed, single-song chapters), watching Urgh! straight through is how the film has been experienced for most of its 28-year history. If you could go straight to 999 playing “Homicide,” you’d end up skipping past the Alley Cats doing “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore,” and you would probably never even bother watching the masked men of Invisible Sex play their cardboard guitars on “Valium.” (Worth noting: The fifth chapter skip takes you right to the beginning of the Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed for Me,” which, with its segue into Steel Pulse’s “Ku Klux Klan,” is a highlight of the film.)

While this was probably a money-saving (or licensing) consideration, it actually helps preserve the dizzying effect the original had on audiences. And to those who try to make the argument that new wave was the purview of well-coiffed, telegenic pretty boys who couldn’t play their instruments, I highly recommend buying this DVD and preparing for a two-hour lesson in just how great this period in music was.

First appeared Oct. 22, 2009 in Orlando Weekly.

‘A Jihad For Love’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

With the California Supreme Court’s recent decision to not overturn Proposition 8, a number of more hyperbolic commentators took the opportunity to compare the continued commingling of religion, public policy and sexual orientation to the oppression faced by gays and lesbians living in predominantly Muslim countries. While one certainly doesn’t want to minimize just how disturbing the motivations behind (and portent of) Prop 8 were, one only needs to watch A Jihad for Love to know that we have a long way — a very long way — to go before our fundamentalist nutballs begin to look like the Arab world’s fundamentalist nutballs. Director Parvez Sharma takes the discussion to its most effective forum: the way these laws work on real folk. By looking at the day-to-day lives of 16 different people who are wrestling with their faith, the laws of their land and the fact that they’re gay, Sharma not only emphasizes the deleterious impacts of legislated morality, but also the sheer normalcy of her subjects. In a dozen different countries, these 16 people all struggle with many of the same issues — exclusion, oppression, confusion — but they’re all so utterly unremarkable as subjects that the intolerance they face seems that much more bizarre. While the brisk running time of A Jihad for Love doesn’t allow Sharma to paint a full picture of any of his subjects, quantity more than makes up for quality in this case.

First appeared June 3, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Jack Taylor of Beverly Hills’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

A film about a suitmaker wouldn’t generally promise the most engaging cinema. But when a suitmaker has the irascible personality and unmatched history of Jack Taylor, one is not only engaged, but also bemoaning the end of the bespoke era which Taylor represents. Taylor has been operating a tailor’s shop in Los Angeles for the last half-century, and in that time has provided the clothing that defined the style of everyone from the Rat Pack to Jackie Gleason and Cary Grant. Despite a lifetime dealing with customers who are used to not just being right, but also having their egos indulged, Taylor — even after more than 60 years behind the counter — brooks no bullshit when it comes to fitting egos into suits. Wisely, director Cecile Leroy Beaulieu steps out of the film’s subject and history and allows the man himself to tell his story, with the backdrop of his iconic haberdashery providing a perfect setting for his reminiscing. While the tales Taylor spins out are deeply fascinating, it’s his character that makes this documentary exceptional.

First appeared May 27, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Fidel!’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

To cut right to the chase, Fidel! is a fantastic documentary. Made in 1969 by director Saul Landau, the filmmakers had unprecedented — and unseen again — access to Fidel Castro, just a decade after the Cuban Revolution, during a period when the bloom was still on Cuba’s socialist rose. Castro, expansively articulate, ruthlessly cocky and youthfully handsome, had yet to turn into the toothless, aging agitator most Americans now know, and the film shows him in a variety of personal and professional settings, rounding out the one-dimensional caricature he’s so often cast as. Landau captured the man at the height of his powers, when the privation of the American embargo was countered by a robust trade with the Soviet Union and the dream of a communal Caribbean paradise seemed tantalizingly close to fruition. At least that’s what the charismatic leader wanted Landau and his crew to believe. Instead, the fruited plains and productive factories that Castro boasts of so proudly are contrasted with breadlines and scenes of devastating poverty. It’s truly amazing that Castro and his propaganda team allowed such images to leave the island, but by balancing the truth with Fidel’s engaging fantasies, Landau’s doc manages to be more accurate than a film on either of those things would have been on its own.

First appeared May 27, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Gigantor: The Collection Volume 1’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

It’s almost impossible to believe that Gigantor was scandalous when it first hit American airwaves in the mid-’60s. Even with the violence significantly toned down from its original Japanese form, the cartoon series elicited vituperative reactions from parents and critics, with one reviewer going so far as to say that it was “strictly in the retarded babysitter class.” Such a reaction is impossible to believe not just because our tolerance for violence has grown considerably over the past four decades, but also because Gigantor is such a shitty cartoon, it’s hard to believe anyone bothered to be bothered by it. It had cheap, black-and-white animation with a dependency upon static shots and repeated scenery that would shame even Hanna-Barbera, as well as laughable mouth movements with an English soundtrack that probably weren’t better in Japanese. Still, nostalgia is nostalgia, and the formative role that this series played in the development of modern anime is pretty substantial — so, yet again, the first 26 episodes of Gigantor (as it appeared on American TV) are being repackaged to appeal to aging boomer nerds and irony-hunting hipsters. The single best part of this set is the DVD-ROM component, which compiles six issues of the Gigantor comic book, which is no slight on the work done by the folks at E1; although the transfer was taken from the original 16mm prints, the stock quality is so low that the resultant product is still scratchy. But even if it were pristine, the rudimentary level of the source material — especially when compared to the cartoon work that was coming out of America during the preceding decades — is still lacking.

First appeared May 20, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Opera Jawa’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

You like musicals, don’t you? A little Chicago, maybe, or perhaps a furtive peek at Mamma Mia with your grandma? Even some exotic Bollywood stuff every once in a while? Well, Opera Jawa is definitely musical, with its plot propelled along by singing and dancing and all sorts of choreographed beauty. But it’s not “a musical,” because, as we all know, the joy to be found on Broadway or in Bollywood is the relative simplicity of the whole affair — boy meets girl, problems arise, true love conquers in the end — is muted by the spectacle of showmanship, the humming of melodies and the tap-tap-tapping of feet. Opera Jawa is anything but simple. Based on the story contained within the 24,000 verses of the Ramayana, the plot of this Indonesian film (yes, Jawa is a reference to Java, not the tiny, robed residents of Tatooine) is complex and far-reaching. Though there’s a love story at its core, the violence and desperation of so many of its characters makes Opera Jawa a dense tangle of subplots and interwoven lives that would be difficult to unravel even if the exposition were done in a forthright fashion. As it is, Opera Jawa forces the viewer to process its story through visually intoxicating set pieces, musical numbers and subtitled Indonesian dialogue. And while this makes the first time through this two-hour film something of a challenge, repeated viewings continue to reveal perspectives and insight, without any dilution of the impact of the sights and sounds that can be so dizzying at first.

First appeared May 13, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.