Digital downloads and the classic movie collector – exploring Vudu

Vudu is an online movie streaming and download service now owned by Walmart.  It’s one of several vendors connected with the UltraViolet initiative being touted by the major studios.  The service offers rentals of movies for anywhere from $2 to $5 and downloads you can “own” for $10 to $20.  The service is available on just about every streaming media, blu-ray player and game console.

I had run into Vudu and UltraViolet many times over the past few months.  Studios have been offering “free” UltraViolet copies of movies when you purchase dvds or blu-rays.  What piqued my interest was getting these “digital copies” when I purchased the massive 50-movie Warner Brothers anniversary blu-ray set.

The idea behind UltraViolet is that it acts as a standard for distributing secure copies of movies through various vendors (Vudu is one of several) – you can access UltraViolet titles through any of their vendors.  If you buy it on one service, you can view it on another if you wish.

Recently, I explored the service a little more and discovered that it has many Warner Archive and “classic” movie titles from other studios – several are high-definition versions that have not been released on blu-ray.

Is Vudu an option for a classic movie lover?

I had a chance to really find out when I discovered Vudu’s “Disc to Digital” service – if you own a dvd of a film in their catalogue, you can “upgrade” and purchase a downloadable high-definition version for $5.  You download their Vudu to Go software to your computer that assembles the cart and verifies that you own the disc.

Vudu to Go and the Disc to Digital program is in “beta”, so they’re offering a special deal through January 31st – if you convert ten or more in a batch with the software, you get half off your purchase, cutting the cost down to $2.50 per movie.  All Disc to Digital titles offered by Vudu are UltraViolet purchases, so they can be used on other services.

Read more…

Categories: digital distribution

An easter egg on a region b blu-ray

I happened to pick up a copy of the Eureka! Masters of Cinema release of Frank Tashlin’s “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?”.  The disc is Region B (Europe) encoded – when you put it in a US player, this screen comes up (click for a larger version):



Hmm… it seems they’re not too fond of region coding, are they?  I also noticed a screen with the same wording on their region B encoded disc “Make Way for Tomorrow”.

Categories: blu-ray, copyright

Password (1960s)

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the hidden pleasures that result from a crappy economic situation is the close-out store.

I’ve made a habit of making regular visits to my local Big Lots, a store specializing in close-outs from major manufacturers.  No one had to tell me that the market for dvds was collapsing – I could see it through the ever-increasing stacks of movies showing up on the shelves for $2 or $3.

One of the more curious finds recently – especially since I wouldn’t buy it for myself if it was full-price – was The Best of Password, a compilation of episodes from this long-running gameshow.  The programs, mastered from 2″ videotapes, cover almost the full decade of the 1960s, presenting mostly shows from the nighttime version of the program in black and white and a handful in garish color from the daytime version of the series.

If you’ve never seen it, Password has a simple concept – two contestants go against each other with a celebrity partner, trying to guess common words with one word clues.

It’s definately a relic of a different time.  The show, even though it was a big hit on CBS, looks like something that might be done for cable access or YouTube today with it’s simple set, three camera setup and leisurely pace.  It seems downright lethargic and comatose compared to the highly caffeinated, glitzy, computer graphics-heavy game shows of today.

And the celebrities – some first rate talent showed up on Password each week.  Peter Lawford, Joan Crawford, Jerry Lewis, Carol Burnette, Lawrence Harvey and countless others appeared, plugging their latest books, films and tv shows.  It’s not like television today, where “b” or list celebrities wind up on game shows or even contestants on game or reality shows become “d” list celebrities themselves.

Think about it – seeing Olivia de Havilland or Lawrence Harvey on Password in the 1960s would be a bit like watching Meryl Streep or Philip Seymour Hoffman pop up on Who Wants to Be a Millionare? today.

In the 1960s, we looked at Bob Crane, who jokes with Allen Ludden in one episode because he had to wear one of Ludden’s jackets for the show, and saw him as the handsome and good-natured lead actor on the popular sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.  Woody Allen, bumbling and awkward as ever, guests with a young Nancy Sinatra on one episode at a time when Allen was just starting to make a name for himself – his movie What’s New Pussycat? had just opened.  Bob Denver was at his peak in Gilligan’s Island in one of the shows on the set – he looks odd out of his standard Gilligan outfit and even cracks jokes about his 50s sitcom role as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs.

Looking at the shows now, we see the celebrities with a different eye.  Crane’s appearance on-screen brings back memories of the film Auto Focus, dealing with his sexual escapades and mysterious murder.  Woody Allen’s transformation from television comedian to film auteur to somewhat creepy has-been makes his appearance on Password look like something from another planet.  Perhaps only Bob Denver gives off the vibe that, even then, he was a big pot head.

It isn’t particularly the nostalgia and reflection on a “more innocent” times that makes these shows fascinating as much as it highlights both the good and bad aspects of American society in the 1960s.

Yes, it’s somewhat bland and inoffensive – Ludden goes through the motions of the game play, bouncing between the contestants and keeping score like the steady beat of metronome.  But that blandness and predictability give a sense of security and stability.  At a time when America’s role in the world was changing and, here at home, issues with race, the generation gap, and the environment were rearing their ugly heads, television was an island of civility and sameness, giving the reassurance of an old friend.

It’s no wonder that Mad Men has sparked a nostalgia for the fashions of the sixties.  When you think about it, the decade was the last hurrah of America’s conspicuous consumption for the masses.  We had a large middle class that could afford nice homes, big cars, a decent vacation, a new tv set and dressy clothes to wear out to work or for a night on the town.  The “down market” aesthetic that has people showing up at the office in flip-flops and blue jeans and much worse at Walmart is as much about the shrinking of the middle class in recent decades as it is a statement about a society where you can “be yourself”.

Of course, the most disconcerting thing about these episodes of Password is how white they are – there are no Black celebrities outside of Sammy Davis, Jr, though one episode features a young Black lady as a contestant.  On the later color shows in the set, we regularly see shots of the audience and, indeed, the crowd is racially mixed.  But this is a reminder of the long path of racial minorities to be seen on television – we’ve always been a multicultural society, it just wasn’t “good business” to admit it on tv.

One of my hobbies is Old Time Radio – comedy and drama programs from the 30s, 40s and 50s.  The race issue is even more apparent with these shows with almost all white performers and the occasional overt and more subtle racial stereotypes that make us wince (or worse) today.  I have the feeling that pre-1970s television will suffer the same fate as Old Time Radio – things have changed so much culturally since these shows were produced, particularly in the ways we view race and gender, that the programs will likely just be forgotten by newer generations just as Old Time Radio retains only a small following today.

As someone who enjoys history, I find these shows fascinating, but I don’t particularly have any sense of nostalgia for them.  The Tea Party members around today who want to turn back the clock to the 50s, 60s or even before are really a primary audience for this vintage material – nostalgia is big business on broadcast digital television sub-channels and cable, repeating old movies and tv shows as if it were 1969.

As much as I wish our own times had the kind of prosperity, civility in debate, and politeness of a by-gone age, I realize that things have changed and there’s no going back to what we were before.

Seeing Password reminds me it’s fun and interesting to visit the past.  But I wouldn’t particularly care to live there.

Categories: nostalgia, The Sixties

Watchmen – Director’s Cut (2009)

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

I have a friend who is an unashamed comic book geek, a fanatic about Transformers.  It’s fascinating to spend a dinner with him and some of his comic geek friends as they go into arguments and details about the finer points of obscure characters and plots in comic book and superhero tv shows.  It’s a bit like being foisted into a parallel universe where everyone is speaking English, but you have no idea what they’re talking about.

I’m not one to criticize these kinds of esoteric interests – I can recall voice actors, characters, obscure plots and even commercial jingles from sixty year old radio shows that saner people have long forgotten.

In viewing the blu-ray of Watchmen recently, it brought to mind how the comic book fanboy culture and the aesthetic of comics have changed films over the past few years.  It seems about every major Hollywood film released is either a rom-com, dumb comedy or action film based on a comic book.  Or, in the case of something like The Green Hornet, it can practically be all three.

Technology and the Internet have created the perfect storm for the comic book movie trend.  From its earliest days as a business, film producers have loved any technology that can “wow” an audience and get them excited about a film or that can help promote their work.

Early films became immensely popular by reworking the newspaper and magazine serialized story into a film series and using new, cheap fan magazines to get movie goers excited about “stars”.  (Before then, players were uncredited and anonymous or secondary to what the story was about.)

In the late 20s and early 30s, movie goers were inundated with musicals made possible by the new technology of sound film and the free promotion of the songs contained in the movies through the new exciting medium of radio.

The current comic book craze builds on the technology of special effects.  If you were around in 1978, you might recall the advertising tagline used on trailers and posters for Superman:  “You will believe a man can fly”.

The effects, done without computers, were a remarkable step forward for films at the time.  Before Superman, comic book movies were campy or aimed at kids – the ill fitting costumes, wires and stunt-work were just not convincing enough to suspend the disbelief of adults.

The second revolution that happened to make the comic book film so big is the Internet where fan boys with specific knowledge and fetishes for the world of comics can congregate and debate endlessly on their favorite writers, artists, characters and stories.  And they can create considerable buzz for a new comic book based movie, guaranteeing a big audience on opening night.

That’s why Watchmen seemed so flat and uninteresting to me – I’m not the primary audience for it.

Faithful to the original comic books (to a fault, according to some critics), the film seems like so much sound, fury and bluster for what amounts to a shaggy dog story about a man (or demi-god, in this case) who has a girlfriend that stepped out on him and the usual brilliant mind that’s decided to take over the world.

In a comic book, you can use your imagination to fill in the space between the frames, adding your own depth to the story and the characters.  With all of the thin story presented on-screen, however, the emptiness and shallowness of it shows through.

But the typical fan boy who saw the film and enjoyed it didn’t care.  The original Watchmen comic was something they latched on to as revolutionary and adult when it was released in the 1980s.  The film just needed to be a faithful rendition of the comic; their imagination and discussions on web boards about the movie could fill in what was lacking.

I think there’s a generational thing happening with films that are driven by special effects.  Despite the faithful rendering of all the earth shattering events depicted in Watchmen, I could never suspend my disbelief and become engaged with the characters and story.  It’s something I’ve noticed with many comic book or action films in recent years.  Instead of saying, “Wow – it’s interesting he’s decided to blow up New York!”, I find myself mulling over the realism and merits of the cgi enhanced costume of the character or the fighting moves and jumps he or she makes that violate basic laws of physics.

It took a few years for musicals to run their course in the early thirties.  By the end of the cycle, Hollywood had snapped up just about all the songwriting talent from the New York stage and had developed some of their own.  The musical settled down into being not the primary type of film at your local theater, but just one of many genres that would be seen each week.

The same thing will likely happen to the comic book movie.  Already, we have a remake or “reboot” as it’s called of Spiderman, a film that was released less than a decade ago, and the studios seem to be running out of characters from the DC, Marvel and 80s television universe that can be turned into films.

And, besides, when we have people in superhero costumes patrolling the streets of major cities or Lady Gaga performing sell out concerts in costumes more outrageous than any comic book villain, Tony Stark’s transformation from party-boy alcoholic to Iron Man seems so ordinary.


Estigmas (aka Stigmata) (2009)

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

When you think of religious pictures, cheesy American epics might come to mind – The Ten Commandments, King of Kings – but filmmakers have explored faith through films as diverse as Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ.

Estigmas (aka Stigmata) is one of those small, character driven movies that looks at faith in a much more personal way.  The debut feature by Adán Aliaga, Estigmas is based on a comic novel that looks at a burly alcoholic, Bruno, who works in a bar and how stigmata impacts his life – he looses his job, he is evicted from his apartment, and becomes a wanderer on the edges of society.  Some interpret his affliction as psychological, something to be feared or a blessing.  To Bruno, the stigmata is a curse.

Spanish Olympic shot putter Manuel Martínez, turns in a simple, understated and melancholy performance as Bruno and the rest of the cast is in fine form.  As you can imagine, this is a story that ends in tears – it’s not something that lends itself to a light evening’s entertainment.

There is much to commend this remarkable film.  It’s never been picked up for distribution outside of it’s home country, Spain, and is available on a fine anamorphic PAL formatted dvd, highlighting the stark black and white cinematography.  It’s well worth your time to seek out a copy.

Estigmas is from a long tradition of faith-based films focusing on more human stories and is a interesting case study on the current art house marketplace here in the US.  In the 1960s and 70s, many of Bergman’s personal works were seen on movie screens here in the US and Bunuel, with his satirical touch on religion were art house favorites.  Religion and faith were common themes in art house films up through the 1990s with films like Wings of Desire or Jesus of Montreal.

That Estigmas hasn’t been seen here isn’t surprising.  The art house marketplace has collapsed in recent years with fewer screens available for releasing films.  While companies like Film Movement try to gain attention for independent and foreign works on dvd release, even that market is contracting with a surplus of product as pressed discs compete with streaming.  The foreign and independent art house films that seem to find an audience are cultural or political documentaries or bigger budget foreign films – historical epics or action pictures – that are easy to promote.

With professional level filmmaking equipment becoming so inexpensive and our access to hundreds or thousands of movies at our fingertips, it’s no wonder that interesting works fall through the cracks.

Films about religion have fallen on hard times here in the US, pandering to the most conservative fundamentalists – the Left Behind series and the Passion of the Christ – or have a simplistic Hallmark card syrupy sentimentality and lack any moral complexity (yes, Tyler Perry – I’m talking about you).

It’s too bad.  Estigmas, with its focus on the impact of faith and the film’s moral ambiguity, would be a good conversation starter for any Christian or anyone interested in considering the human condition.

Boom! (1968)

If you’ve read or heard anything at all about atrocious movies, Boom! is the stuff of legend.

I recently had an opportunity to screen a UK released PAL disc of this fascinating mess to a group of friends in my home theater.  One saw it in a theater during it’s original release and recalled sitting alternately laughing himself silly and staring in dumb-founded amazement at how bad it was.

If you’re late to the cult movie party, here’s the scoop.

Boom! was based on the Tennessee Williams play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.  Directed by Joseph Losey, it featured Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward as the principle players.

Taylor and Burton were at the height of their popularity, coming off their tremendous success in Who’s Afraid of Virgnia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966) and the less successful The Comedians (Peter Glenville, 1967).

Tennessee Williams?  Losey?  Coward?  Taylor and Burton?  What could possibly go wrong?

The story centers on a dying women, Mrs. Goforth, who lives on a secluded island, visited by her friend only known as “The Witch of Capri” and writing her memoirs.  Suddenly, a strange young man shows up on the island, Chris Flanders, a kind of angel of death.  (In an odd way, it made me wonder if Tennessee wrote it to explore what happened to Blanche DuBois after she was released from the insane asylum.)

The play was really designed to have Goforth played by someone older than Elizabeth Taylor and to have the young man played by someone considerably younger than Richard Burton.  In 1964, it was staged with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter in the main roles.

But the miscasting is the least of its problems.  Losey isolated the cast on a beautiful island off the coast of Italy.  Alcohol flowed and the production went out of control.

Taylor prances and overacts through the whole thing, chewing up scenery and spitting it out like yesterday’s candy.  Burton seems to sleepwalk through his role, blankly looking off into the distance, muttering “Boom!” for no apparent reason.  Poor Noël Coward, as the Witch of Capri, seems lost amongst the pretty, artfully lighted sets, dashing off fey witty one-liners.

Taylor’s costumes look like something out of a Bob Mackey wet dream, with enough glitter and spangle to make any drag queen envious and to fill any tv screen with dizzying moire patterns.  The castle where Mrs. Goforth holds court is this strange modernist thing that includes, for no apparent reason, giant Easter Island head statues in the background on a hilltop.

See Elizabeth Taylor do kabuki!

See the military commander midget commanding killer dogs to chase down Burton!

See Elizabeth Taylor cough up a lung as she pretends to be an elderly dying woman!

There are many more strange and surreal sights far too confounding to mention here.

A moment where I found myself laughing out loud comes about a third of the way through the film.  We hear the music on the soundtrack start as Taylor goes into one of her hissy fits.  The scene plays out, John Barry’s score highlighting the absurd spectacle perfectly.  Then, Taylor reaches over to a knob on the intercom and just shuts off the music.

She’s such an obnoxious controlling bitch that even the film’s non-diegetic soundtrack has to succumb to her will.

Boom! would have probably been forgotten as the fantastic misfire it was if it weren’t for the love and care of one person – John Waters.

Waters has been a long-time fan of the movie.  In Multiple Maniacs (1970), you can see the one-sheet poster for the film on the wall of Waters’s apartment used for a key scene with Divine.  His devotion goes further – he’s owns what might be the last remaining 35mm print of Boom! still in the wild.  In recent years, he’s taken the print on the road and arranged public showings, breathlessly promoting his favorite “failed art film”.

It’s easy to see why Waters has a fetish for the movie – Divine is Mrs. Goforth on acid, mowing down anyone in her way to get what she wants, yelling and screaming until the world is at her feet.  Waters spent the first few years of his career remaking Boom!, turning it into the surrealist masterpiece it should have been.

Without Boom!, there would be no Pink Flamingoes (1972).

It’s unfortunate that Boom! hasn’t seen a release on dvd (or better yet blu-ray) here in the US.  Something as confusing, misguided and atrocious as this could inspire a whole new generation of actors and filmmakers to even more bizarre excess.

The Killers (1964)

Who would think that a little tv movie could be revolutionary and ahead of its time?

NBC was having quite a bit of ratings success with a movie package they licensed from 20th Century Fox in the early 1960s.  Seeing top rate movies on network television was something fairly new at the time – before then, movies were mostly filler on local stations, culled from the few packages they could obtain like RKO’s back catalog.

Someone came up with the idea of producing a feature film especially for television.  If audiences would stay home to watch a recent box office success, wouldn’t they get more excited about a world movie premiere, right on their own home television screen?

The network contracted with Universal who put Don Siegel on the project.  The director of films like the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Siegel had talent and was used to working fast with small-scale budgets.  Originally, the idea was to do a straight remake of The Killers (1946, Robert Siodmak), but Siegel came up with an updated, much more cynical spin on the yarn.

The film brought together an impressive assortment of talent – Lee Marvin and character actor Clu Gulager play the title characters who are hired to bump off a former race car driver played by John Cassavetes.  When the victim, Johnny North, doesn’t even try to run away when the assassins gun him down in a school for the blind (a particularly vicious opening to the film), Marvin is determined to find out why.

As the killers investigate Johnny North’s past, they encounter Claude Akins, Norman Fell, and become entangled in a web of cross and double cross with Angie Dickinson and bad guy Ronald Reagan in his last film before becoming governor of California.

When the film was finished, Universal wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.  NBC deemed it too violent for prime time television.  So, it wound up being released to theaters.  It didn’t make a huge impression at the time, but its reputation has grown over the years and its influence is still being seen in films today.  Of course, it has the look of a cheap tv movie with harsh, flat lighting; cardboard sets; and laughable back projection.  But, Siegel and his talented company make it more than just another tv show.

The violence itself isn’t exactly shocking today, but in 1964 would have turned a few heads with the way that the hired killers and Reagan go about shooting people or slapping around Angie Dickinson without batting an eye.  The killers, with Marvin playing the cool, unhinged character that would become his trademark, and Gulager playing his almost goofy, but cold and calculated sidekick, would be pawned by directors like Quentin Tarantino for films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992).  The action sequences and violence; the cold, cynical nature of the characters; and the bleak world it creates would look ahead to the action films of the late 60s and early 70s – Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) or Siegal’s own Dirty Harry (1971) or Charley Varrick (1973).

Siegel basically took film noir and repackaged it for a new generation.  It’s telling that the JFK assassination occurred during the filming of The Killers.  Big budget Hollywood movies would take on a harder edge as the sixties progressed, reflecting the times – The Killers, seen more as exploitative fodder for drive-ins at the time, was probably just a little ahead of the curve.

Siegel’s film isn’t perfect.  At times, the script does feel a bit padded with several scenes centering around Johnny’s racing as he develops a relationship with Angie Dickinson.  And the structure of the story, told through flashbacks from the different characters, might be off-putting as a little cliched until you see that Siegel’s using the device to provide just the right clues at the right time and to give us a deeper look at the characters and their motivations.

The Killers might surprise you a bit with the opening credits, by the way – the main title theme was cribbed by Universal from Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958).  The music for the rest of the film was composed by some guy named “Johnny Williams” who would go on to create music for a few films you might have heard of like Jaws and Superman.  You might recognize another name in the opening titles – Gene Coon, who would be writing scripts for Star Trek in a few years.