Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Whether or not they are good or bad, I've always had a soft spot for horror films from the 1970s and 80s. Scream Factory has been doing an excellent job in recent years of sprucing those films up and giving them the Blu-ray treatment they deserve (which is, in some cases, more than they deserve), pleasing fans of horror and cult films alike.

Most recently they have released two cult semi-classics, Joe Dante's The Howling (1981), and Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985). The Howling is perhaps the most well known, if for no other reason than for the plethora of sequels that it spawned. Lifeforce is more of an odd duck, a strange horror/sci-fi hybrid that features vampires from outerspace.

Both Dante and Hooper are horror icons, of course. With Dante helming Gremlins, Piranha, and a segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, while Hooper is the mind behind such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.

The Howling was released the same year as John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, both of which featured impressive, but completely different, makeup design. Legendary makeup wizard Rick Baker was originally slated to work on the film, but left to do American Werewolf, leaving his assistant, Rob Bottin, to take over makeup duties on The Howling. It's interesting watching the difference between the two approaches, and ultimately I think The Howling is the weaker film, but both have their merits. It's certainly ot your typical werewolf movie - a news reporter (Dee Wallace) has a traumatic experience after being used as live bait for a serial killer, and heads off to a secluded retreat center populated by, you guessed it, a colony of werewolves.

It seems surprisingly slight when held up in relation to his other films, but The Howling features some effective scares. Dante is great at creating an atmosphere, and the air of mystery and dread that surround the camp is palpable. He may have been working with a low budget here, but he makes the most of it. Dante manages to overcome his limitations to some degree, but the film itself never quite leaves the middle of the road. It's not as exciting as Piranha or as fun as Gremlins, although Dante does stuff the film with some nifty inside jokes for film fans.

Lifeforce, on the other hand, is a film that's hard to classify. Part horror, part sci-fi, completely bizarre, it's really unlike any other movie out there. But when you're dealing with a movie about space vampires, it's safe to assume you're in mostly uncharted territory. Based on the novel by Colin Wilson, Lifeforce tells the story of a space shuttle tasked with charting Halley's comet, where they discover a derelict vessel containing three perfectly preserved human bodies.

After returning them to Earth, the bodies awaken, and begin draining the energy out of their victims, regenerating themselves and turning everyone they encounter into energy vampires like themselves. With the ability to turn themselves into bat-like creatures, these are the source of the vampire myths of old, returning to Earth to feed on its population. With their curse spreading like a virus, a small group must find a way to stop them before it engulfs the entire planet.

With a bold, brassy, John Williams-esque score by Henry Mancini, Lifeforce certainly feels like a big sci-fi epic. The special effects (supervised by Star Wars wizard, John Dykstra) are surprisingly strong, even if some of them are a bit hokey now, but its hard not to get caught up in it, if for no other reason than for its striking originality. It's a fascinating genre amalgam, borrowing from the likes of Alien and 2001: A Space Odyessey and then charting its own unique course. It has a tendency to get too caught up in the details of its strange plot, but overall the film is a strong and oft-overlooked piece of 1980s science fiction.

Scream Factory's Blu-ray presentation of both films is excellent, both in terms of the transfers and the extras. The films look great, sharp without losing that film-like quality that movies like this need, and the extras provide in-depth looks at the making and legacy of the films. The Lifeforce disc features some illuminating retrospectives with the cast, while The Howling actually takes time to remember is countless sequels and how they relate to the original. Fans will also be pleased by the appealingly retro artwork on both discs, recalling the horror VHS tapes I used to rent as a kid. For fans and the uninitiated, both are great genre discoveries and top of the line releases from one of horror's most stalwart champions.

THE HOWLING - ★★½ (out of four)
LIFEFORCE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory

From The Dispatch:
It's certainly a fast-paced film with a modern structure, but when Verbinski steps back and lets the sound design do the talking much like the opening scene in Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," the film can take your breath away. This is big-budget blockbuster filmmaking the way it ought to be done. The climactic sequence aboard a runaway train, scored with a new arrangement of the iconic "William Tell Overture" by composer Hans Zimmer (whose work here is really superb), is some of the most exciting action we've seen on the big screen in a long time. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

NOTE: The following review was originally published on Nov. 19, 2012.  An addendum as been added to include the film's Blu-ray release.

Patrick Wang's striking directorial debut, In the Family, has perhaps one of the strangest and most unique release patterns of any film in the past year.

Originally given a miniscule release in New York City in November of 2011, In the Family was barely noticed save for a few very passionate reviews. That prompted a slow, wider release that allowed the film to pick up an ever growing group of fans and supporters, leading to its triumphant return to New York's Cinema Village on November 16, more than a year after its initial release, now newly heralded by a much larger group of critics and audiences.

The unusual release pattern, while demonstrating an exceptional faith in a film that is an admittedly difficult sell, has also put it in a strange limbo for critics just now coming to this brilliant film. While most people didn't discover it until 2012, and indeed it is one of 2012's most remarkable cinematic success stories, it is technically a 2011 release, and therefore ineligible for many year end top ten lists, something that no doubt would have helped it along the way.

Joey (Patrick Wang) and Cody (Trevor St. John) in IN THE FAMILY.
Courtesy of In the Family, LLC.
Wang himself stars as Joey, an Asian gay man from Tennessee in a loving long term partnership with white high school teacher Cody (Trevor St. John). Together they are raising Cody's biological son, Chip. When Cody dies suddenly of an unexpected illness, Joey and Chip find themselves alone for the first time, trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. Things get complicated, however, when Joey discovers that Cody left sole custody of Chip to his sister, Sally, in a six year old will. Devastated, Joey is left to wonder what happened, and as he grows more and more estranged from a family that had once accepted him, he is left with nothing but his memories for company. When he decides to fight for his son, it becomes clear that even the law is against him. In a world that doesn't even recognize his relationship as legitimate, his entire family as he knows it is about to be torn apart.

It's an especially timely film, as public opinion continues to shift in favor of gay marriage and becomes ever more accepting of gay families, most recently with the historic victory for gay marriage at the polls and the election of a president that publically supports it. But In the Family is not a political film. Quite the contrary, actually, it's almost anti-political. While it is set in Tennessee, and ignorant opinions clearly rear their ugly head during Joey's climactic deposition at the custody hearing (more out of lawyerly convenience than real hate, it would seem), the film deftly avoids politics by simply treating its characters as human beings. Wang clearly has the plight of gay families close to heart, but the fact that Joey is a homosexual almost seems like a non-issue. He is simply a father fighting for the custody of a son in a legal system that is woefully behind the times.

At nearly three hours long, In the Family may seem a bit daunting, and even self-indulgent for a first time writer/director. But the film never once feels like it's as long as it actually is. Wang never wastes a shot, and each moment is imbued with a kind of quiet dignity. It is a film made up of moments, and these are the moments make up a life. So often the film focuses on what may seem like trivialities, but these small moments create a big picture that is simply stunning. In the days following Cody's death, Wang spends quite a bit of time just observing Joey and Chip silently going through the motions of their life as if in a trance, lost without the missing piece of their family. It is as heartbreaking as it is riveting, and it never feels gratuitous.

Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) and Joey (Patrick Wang) in IN THE FAMILY.
Courtesy of In the Family, LLC.
In the Family is an extraordinarily assured debut, both as a directorial achievement, and as a triumph of acting and writing for Wang. Joey's final deposition, shot in medium close-up in one marathon take, is simply stunning, made even more so by its hushed understatement. You'll find no over the top histrionics here, no shouting or crying or unnecessary melodrama, just a quiet sense of justice. It's so subtle that the final shot hits like a bomb. It is an emotionally shattering denouement to one of the year's most truly special debuts, heralding the arrival of a thrilling new cinematic voice. There's really nothing else quite like it, and as it continues its slow journey across the country, the number of hearts it has touched will only continue to grow. Make sure yours is one of them.

Blu-ray Addendum: It is fitting, somehow, that In the Family's home video release coincided with the landmark Supreme Court decisions affirming gay marriage. While I doubt very much that any of the Justices watched Patrick Wang's marvelous film, one can't help but wonder if Justices Scalia, Alito, Roberts, and Thomas, the dissenting voice in the Defense of Marriage Act case, had watched In the Family would their opinions had been swayed? Doubtful, but one of the most remarkable things about the film is its complete and total normalization of the lifestyle it depicts. You'll see no sensationalism here, no pride parades or courthouse protests, just a man fighting for his son, a family just like any other.

After nearly two years in limited release, slowly gathering buzz and notices at festivals around the country, one of the great independent success stories in recent memory has finally been given a stellar Blu-ray release. The digipak case may not be the most durable over time, but it's certainly lovely, but the real treasure here are the extras. I always appreciate scholarly extras and In the Family delivers, eschewing the typical making-of featurettes for video essays that delve into the structure and meaning of the film. Wang himself takes us on a tour of the editing room, while director H.P. Mendoza talks about his first experience watching the film. The best of them all, however, is "Simple Expressions of Absolute Values," an in-depth exploration of Wang's scene construction and its subtle symbolism by Kevin W. Lee. Lee deconstructs first Wang's "otherness," a gay Asian man with a southern drawl is certainly not the norm. But Wang makes it the norm, and Lee shows us how he subtly draws us in through his unconventional framing and long takes. It's a fascinating film class that deepens one's appreciation of what Wang has achieved here. That's what any great special feature does, and the features on this disc are all top of the line. It has everything I look for in a great DVD package, and fans of the film are not only encouraged to pick it up, but to spread the word. Wang is the real deal, and now everyone can see for themselves what all the fuss is about.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

IN THE FAMILY | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John, Sebastian Brodziak, Park Overall, Brian Murray | Not rated | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

From The Dispatch:
It never reaches the subversive heights the "Bridesmaids" achieved, but that was something akin to lightning in a bottle. However, Feig still manages to achieve a kind of emotional catharsis that is rare in this kind of comedy. Even as the film piles on the laughs, McCarthy worms her way into our hearts, outshining even veteran Bullock. But most importantly, they make us laugh.
Click here to read my full review.