Sunday, December 30, 2012

42nd Street Forever: Blu-Ray Edition/Trailer War

42ND STREET FOREVER (Blu-Ray Edition)
(unrated, 2012, Synapse Films, street date: May 8, 2012, SRP: $24.95)

(unrated, 2012, Drafthouse Films, street date: December 18, 2012, SRP: $14.99)


(WARNING: The following review makes mention of a couple of movies with politically incorrect titles that will remain uncensored, so reader discretion is advised)

People who tell me about how cheap gas and cigarettes were in their age are constantly insufferable, but the grindhouse/drive-in stories of old never wear out their welcome. Going downtown to urban-populated areas with a few fellow fish-out-of-water friends to see the latest kung fu melodrama or blaxploitation blast always has the rapturous hint of danger, deviance and solicitation. It feels like the opposite of white flight, where the lack of curiosity and knowledge divided culture. Perhaps living in the Mesa sticks as a teen gives you a yearning and romanticism that you choose to apply to whatever passion you hold dearly, and for me it was film. I hadn't the slightest clue what postmodernism or irony were the first time I saw Pieces on VHS, and good for me, as I guffawed, groaned and gasped my way through the type of movie that was meant to be seen in a pee-wee community of thrill-seekers. Ditto films like Dead-Alive and Sleepaway Camp that were huge hits among my particular circle of friends, the kind of communal roller coasters that are the stuff of fond memories.

Vintage exploitation cinema trailers were not that big of an obsession in my youth. You know, those cynically concentrated two-minute adrenalin injections that often resorted to sideshow huckster techniques to not just jolt you out of your comfort zone pre-feature presentation, but to make damn sure you came back for more. Sergei Eisenstein would likely pull a G.G. Allin if he had 10 minutes of free time just to see how far the theory of subconsciously manipulative montage came in the 1970s. The bludgeoning mix of sensationalism, hyperbole and voiceover made the cineplex feel like a carnival. And prolonged doses of these taunting, teasing attractions have become enough of a success on digital home video that two separate Blu-Ray trailer reels have surfaced in 2012 to turn living rooms across the country into full-on geek shows.

Charles Band was likely the forefather of the trailer compilation way back in 1981 with The Best of Sex and Violence, distributed by his Wizard Video label, and six years later came Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell. Aside from the unfortunate norm of full-frame cropping, both titles used progressively ludicrous comic relief wraparound segments in between segments, with the former anchored by John Carradine and the latter by the befuddling choice of ventriloquist Nick Pawlow and undead puppet Happy Goldsplat, a poor substitute for the comedic dream team of Bill "Chop Top" Moseley and Nubbins.

Nowadays, the DVD market for feature-length trailer comps is cornered by Synapse Films and their long-running 42nd Street Forever catalogue, the first two volumes of which help compose the series' inaugural HD presentation. Volume 5 was compiled by the founders of the Alamo Drafthouse, now their own independent distributor under the Drafthouse Films banner. You can consider their recent Trailer War a follow-up of sorts to their flagship previews package.

A whopping 89 theatrical trailers and 225 minutes long, 42nd Street Forever: The Blu-Ray Edition continues Synapse's tradition of paying tribute to B-movie history by clustering the various trailers based on subgenres. Talk about everything a growing boy needs. The set kicks off with the coolest cats with the most ebony of skin (Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly) only to take a hard ride into rape/revenge sagas (the peak being Abel Ferrara's devastating 1981 sophomore feature Ms. 45). The program loosens up with a playful tease or ten (College Girls and Street Girls! The Teacher and The Babysitter!) before getting right back into the seedy and sadistic (The Centerfold Girls, Invitation to Ruin) and then back to the innocently erotic (Fairytales). A lengthy middle section of vintage horror is succeeded by several choice porno titles, but then the two categories coalesce in time for a trio of particularly grueling mondo documentaries. Samurais, spies and bikers take us to the final stretch as the set concludes with three youth-oriented titles, including the same trailer that capped off the Volume 2 DVD.

The high points haven't changed since I recapped them the first time on Epinions. The iconic Fred Williamson appoints himself Sheriff Hammer of the Old West in the audaciously-titled Boss Nigger ("Part legend, part devil, all man!"), co-starring D'Urville Martin and the charismatically nasty William Smith, who also antagonizes a staff-wielding nightclub owner known as Black Samson (from the director of Superfly!) in the inaugural preview. The classic "Triple Lindy" from Volume 1 makes a welcome albeit scattered return with brown-eyed Scandinavian bombshell Christina Lindberg headlining They Call Her One Eye, The Depraved (yummy!) and Maid in Sweden. 1983's gory gem The Deadly Spawn remains one of my favorite homegrown alien invasion movies ever, but even that's trumped by the balls-out crimson sprays of 1980's Shogun Assassin, the American re-edit of the first two films in the great Japanese Lone Wolf & Cub series. If you ever wanted to see a banana-eating Mannix as 007, get a load of the Dino De Laurentiis-produced Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die! And then there's The Guy From Harlem, from which I quote my old review:

"This trailer can't be for real, as it plays like a parody of blaxploitation, what with its amateurishly staged gunfights, even worse fight choreography and a theme song that's a really poor Xerox of James Brown...I don't even think the makers of Black Dynamite know about [this]."

T&A is A-OK with the return appearances of Delinquent Schoolgirls (never mind the Stephen Stuckey-assisted rape scene set to ragtime piano and just focus on Sharon Kelly's tremendous rack), College Girls (a monochromatic nudie cutie starring softcore superstar Marsha Jordan), I, a Woman (introducing Essy Persson, yet another gorgeous Swede blessed with erotic persuasion), The Three Dimensions of Greta (see Leena Skoog, "the exciting 3-D girl," doing naked gymnastics!), and nearly every female star from The Centerfold Girls, namely the pleasantly reoccurring Jennifer Ashley and Tiffany Bolling. But don't get too infatuated with the latter babes, lest you wind up like Andrew Prine's memorably puritanical psychopath Clement Dunne ("Displaying your body is filth! You dirty the minds of others!").

1978's The Italian Stallion, adult film director Gail Palmer's shrewd re-issue of the much earlier Sly Stallone skin flick Party at Kitty and Stud's, does everything to capitalize on Stallone's rising star but only proves that, for someone who worked with John Holmes (featured here in the madcap preview for The Lollipop Girls in Hard Candy, propositioning every girl in row 12), Palmer is incredibly stiff in the worst way. Proceed instead to Panorama Blue, "the world's mightiest adult film" in 70mm super widescreen and four-track stereophonic sound as well as touting an all-star porn film cast including Holmes, Uschi Digard and Linda York.

Let's not forget to mention the many, many additional rousing highlights and occasionally riotous lowlights of the package: Rolling Thunder, The Born Losers, Skatetown U.S.A., Sugar Hill, Savage Sisters, The Green Slime, Van Nuys Blvd. ("We interrupt this theatre advertisement to bring you the total destruction of two automobiles!"), Devil's Nightmare, Death Drive (the Franco Nero/David Hess gem better known as Hitch-Hike), The Pom Pom Girls, Hell's Angels on Wheels, Teenage Mother ("means nine months of trouble!"), Super Fuzz, Rabid, The Pink Angels, The Last of the Secret Agents (the Allen & Rossi vehicle in which Nancy Sinatra sings the titular theme song and gets stripped down to her skivvies), Werewolves on Wheels, The Raiders of Atlantis, Deadly Blessing (the 1981 Wes Craven flick coming soon to BD from Scream! Factory), Wicked Wicked, The Undertaker and His Pals, the competing double bills of I Dismember Mama/The Blood Spattered Bride (two words: "upchuck cup") & Night of Bloody Terror/Women of Bloody Horror (boasting one of the most hilarious hard sells in schlock history), and the jaw-dropping, stomach-churning sights found in both The Crippled Master & Shocking Asia.

Exclusive to this set are some more bona fide treats. An interracial romance is beset by bigoted hostility from all sides in the spoiler-tastic advert for the audaciously-titled Honky ("a love story…of hate!"), a 1971 obscurity of note for both the luminous Brenda Sykes and a Quincy Jones soundtrack. 1983's Chained Heat has to be the alpha among women-in-prison movies based on the ensemble cast alone, and also credits I, a Woman director Mac Ahlberg as its cinematographer in the trailer. The Teasers Go to Paris, a frenzied sex comedy, is marketed by Group 1 International in their patented "this controversial movie will be presented without a single cut but here's all the best raciness anyway" fashion. Dr. Butcher, M.D. and The Grim Reaper, a pair of early 1980s Italian splatter films which split the lead actors from Lucio Fulci's Zombie, are best known by one well-accepted alternate title (Zombie Holocaust and Anthropophagus, respectively). Act of Vengeance (or Rape Squad), memorably featured in a Valentine's Day showcase for Brad Jones' The Cinema Snob, offers up a bevy of women seeking vengeance on a serial rapist in a hockey mask who has a kinky affection for "Jingle Bells." The bawdy stop motion adventure of serial skin-off Flesh Gordon, John Carpenter's debut film Dark Star, Pier Pasolini's controversial Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom (presented here in German export format), the wild Chinese caper SuperMan Chu, and the nudist colony exposé The Sun, The Place and the Girls invite further interest.

The sprawling, categorical nature of 42nd Street Forever: The Blu-Ray Edition means that there is a considerable lack of diversity compared to the proper DVD issues of the first two volumes. Those discs' expansive array of giallos, nunsploitation, peplum, and rubber suit monsters are nowhere to be found on this Blu-Ray, which I hope gets rectified on the Blu-Ray Edition's very own sequel. Also MIA are vehicles for the truly immortal likes of Peter Cushing (Corruption), Edwige Fenech (Creampuffs) and Adolfo Celi (Murders in the Rue Morgue). Furthermore, and it should go without saying, you may need a will of diamonds to withstand all the long stretches of admittedly sumptuous nudity (of every stripe here), chintzy splatter and those dubiously anthropological endurance tests known as the mondo. Even being familiar with many of the trailers beforehand didn't keep me from watching the entire package in self-appointed intervals.

No matter how you choose to schedule them in, this is a boundless treasure trove of smutty, nutty, bloody good fun. You'll be amazed by how wild even the most artful of trailers can be; I, a Woman comes on like a sober study of sensual awakening, but then has scantily clad Essy Persson getting thrown over someone's shoulder and getting spanked like a bastard stepchild. Prolific B-movie distributors such as New World, Crown International, AIP, Dimension, and Film Ventures International crop up, but notice major studios like Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM unleashing films as derivative and demented as anything produced in Italy and approved by Roger Corman. Take this BD as you will, but if you don't soil your seat in any way at any point during this three-hours-plus schlock party, you're already undead.

There's not really a wide berth of extras you can afford to a straightforward series of movie trailers, but just like the third and fourth DVD editions (Exploitation Explosion and Cooled by Refrigeration), there is a marathon audio commentary reuniting the savvy trio of Edwin Samuelson (AV Maniacs webmaster, occasional DVD commentary moderator), Michael Gingold (managing editor of Fangoria, sometime filmmaker and fellow DVD moderator) and Chris Poggiali (Shock Cinema writer, page master of The Temple of Schlock, also on Blogspot). Flashing back to the third volume alone, I distinctly recall their informative, inquisitive discussions of Blood Beach, The Life and Times of Xaviera Hollander and Enter the Ninja among others.

Even with a three-hour threshold that occasionally wears them down, especially in some gruelingly long previews for Ginger and College Girls, it's another keeper. The highly proficient Poggiali recounts most of the trivia and movie details throughout, with Samuelson going solo in his affection for Dark Star and Gingold naturally handling a lot of the horror titles. The jovial Fango scribe (listen to his introduction for Kinji Fukasaku's The Green Slime) delivers the set's best screening anecdotes, talking about his affectionately absurd experiences with both Teenage Mother (a tawdry Jerry Gross roadshow exhibition that purports to be educational about the trials of sex and pregnancy) and The Deadly Spawn (Gingold caught it in Times Square, where a huge display of John Dods' creature design led to a photo opportunity). The mondo section opens a few raw nerves for the men, a refreshing rebuke to the atypical "ain't it cool" hipster bravado. There's even a point where an irritated Samuelson stops the track dead for one particular film, incidentally not one of the mondos, which depicts forced coprophagia.

Oh well, I guess even fart contest over-enthusiasts have their limits.


By comparison to Mike, Eddie and Chris, Alamo Drafthouse programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson have very little in the way of scruples. One of the cruddiest trailers in their possession is for the 1979 Taiwanese chop socky effort Eunuch of the Western Palace (starring Lo Lieh from Five Fingers of Death), and in case you didn't know what a eunuch is, you get a pretty graphic visual definition right out of the gate. The film even shows the resulting surgical mess being cauterized, complete with sizzling flesh and screaming. Lars and Zack don't appear to gag or get offended in the slightest; on the contrary, such a nasty image is too good to step over in their quest to catalog the more tasteless and obscure cinematic surprises to have the fortune of resurfacing.

Trailer War runs closer to two hours in length with a sum total of 45 trailers, presented like 42nd Street Forever in an HD transfer sourced from authentic 35mm elements. The goal this time around is less contextual than Synapse's far-reaching assembly of titles from the golden era of exploitation films and more a constant communication of awestruck disbelief. A large percentage of the various movies assembled here could be midnight movies in the making for a generation who go to the cinema to mockingly embrace such amateur hour trainwreck totems of random audacity, petulant nihilism and misplaced intentions as The Room, Birdemic and Troll 2, which is a depressing state indeed for many who honestly can articulate the charm, subversion and sheer entertainment value found in much better B-movies such as Bad Taste, TerrorVision, and, of course, The Deadly Spawn.

The Drafthouse duo have done right by attempting to preserve 35mm prints of hard-to-see movies through an affiliate organization called the American Genre Film Archive. It is from this particular vault whence the trailers featured for this compilation come. Based on the evidence here, your curiosity as to how many of the movies are secured in their entirety is certainly aroused.

The set begins and ends with the two most rousing Whitman's samplers of weird, the first being Brian Trenchard-Smith's Stunt Rock (1978), a proudly plot-proof vehicle for both the ballsy Australian daredevil Grant Page, glimpsed in pre-recorded acts of life-risking valor, and the hair metal outfit Sorcery, whose stage show is defined by epic pyrotechnic battles between mystical wizard Merlin and the Devil. Truly "a death wish at 120 decibels!" The closer is 1989's Thunder Cops, a.k.a. Operation Pink Squad II, one of those spellbindingly supernatural and utterly schizoid Hong Kong free-for-alls in the proud tradition of Mr. Vampire. The shoot-out sequences alone are unbelievable, including one with the nonchalant murder of an innocent bystander who then suffers the kind of indignity worthy of any random sap in Paul Verhoeven film.

In between those two go-for-broke bookends, there's plenty of kitschy flotsam to wade through. Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984) shames new wave and neo-rockabilly by offering a Xanadu-caliber vehicle for Pia Zadora, hedging its bets by tossing in a chainsaw-wielding loon (Michael Berryman) and Jermaine Jackson at the height of his solo success. David Carradine goes kill crazy as a villainous Marine in Animal Protector (1988), which is marketed as an over-the-top Cannon-style action bonanza, which belies the fact that it was supposed to express genuine interest in animal rights. The Mutations (1974), starring a probably squandered Donald Pleasance, is like a sad cross-pollination between Island of Lost Souls and Freaks. 80-year-old vaudeville legend Moms Mabley appears for the first and last time on the big screen in Amazing Grace (1974). A pre-West Side Story Rita Moreno gets caught up in another race war in Lola's Mistake (1960), a more promiscuous recut of the straight delinquency drama Black Rebels (sure enough, the trailer's kooky/sexy highlight was also a deliberate insert on part of producer William Rowland). And who will ever forget Partners (1982), a broad comic update of Crusing from the screenwriter of La Cage Aux Folles that mismatches straight Ryan O'Neal with queenie William Hurt?!

To counter the proto-Chuck and Larry antics of Partners, there's a thriller called Amuck! (1971) with Barbara Bouchet as an active lesbian under the nefarious employ of Farley Granger. Just like the Teasers Go to Paris ad from the prior BD, this Group 1 release offers up copious nudity with a few "cut" card inserts and haughty narration suggesting the film will be shown unexpurgated; better still, the trailer concludes with some contrived testimonials from "audience members" placed in front of a poster for an entirely different movie.

A bizarre Mexican revenge film titled Con el Odio en el Piel (1988) is littered with laughable fashions and brutish misogyny. The horror flicks Don't Answer the Phone (1980), The Scaremaker (or Girls Nite Out, 1982) and Alan Ormsby's classic Deranged (1974) offer further evidence that sometimes it's hard to be a woman. And then there are the Women in Cell Block 7 (1973), the first Italian blast of caged heat where the prisoners are equally under threat from not just nympho wardens and conniving cellmates, but also random Spanish subtitles. Equally lost in translation is a French-dubbed trailer for the gonzo Maniac Cop 2 (1990), where the foreign tongues couldn't sound more bored reading over scenery-chewing work from Robert Davi and Leo Rossi.

Nilsen and Carlson lean on Ozploitation twice more with Brian Trenchard-Smith's The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and Dead End Drive-In (1986), and they can't help but toss in a pair of woeful Joe Don Baker action vehicles in Golden Needles (1974) and the notorious Mitchell (1975). But does anybody really need to see the advert for the easily obtainable (thanks to Shout! Factory) Starcrash (1978) again? I never thought I'd say this about a preview that features Caroline Munro in leather lingerie and tons of blatant Star Wars nods, but since it's already on the 42nd Street Forever BD and Stephen Romano's Shock Festival, let's give it a rest.

Still, they cover a lot of the same bases as the 42nd Street Forever BD in terms of representing the irrepressible thrills of blaxploitation (Black Samurai, 1977), kung fu (The Tongfather, 1974), science fiction (Inframan, 1975), crime-oriented action (Big Guns, 1973), handicapped fighters (Mr. No Legs, 1979), and sexy comedies (The Beach Girls, 1982). Trailer War doesn't quite represent every category as exhaustively but succinctly as what Synapse's titles offer, including the Alamo's own expertly-selected fifth volume (seriously, why isn't The Secret of Magic Island not out on DVD?), but when the set hits its sporadic strides (the 1984 Charlie Band anthology film The Dungeonmaster, more of the mighty Sonna Chiba in 1974's Sister Street Fighter), you might find yourself saying "They don't make ‘em like they used to."

And this time, you'll be right on the money.


Trailer War
42nd Street Forever

Very little is to be said about the 1080p, 1:78:1 aspect ratio-friendly transfers for both 42nd Street Forever and Trailer War. By comparison, though, the Drafthouse disc has the more erratic leaps in quality versus Synapse, primarily because the trailers for Trailer War haven't undergone any major remastering. Compare the presentations of Starcrash from both discs like I did and you'll notice the difference; the Drafthouse disc is grungier and more riddled with age defects (although it does have more information, rendering it closer to 1.85:1), while the Synapse disc cleans house without sacrificing the authentic 35mm projection feel. The Synapse disc also has the edge in terms of crisper HD detail on faces, flesh tones and colors, especially in the preview for Hard Candy of all titles, where circus peanuts and Playmate protuberances alike boast eye-popping clarity. Drafthouse's sicklier hues and softer image are no doubt the result of neglect, but at least there's a consistency in the resolution scanning and nary a jarring frame skip to be found.

Trailer War sports a lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 track at 192 kbps, and once again you just have to accept it on faith that this the best possible option considering the trailer's urchin-like mistreatment. Distortion levels vary with each trailer, with some boasting incredibly harsh reverb and flat fidelity. The snaps, crackles and pops are to be expected, but even the ones that naturally should have stereo separation feel like mono. There are no subtitles for any of the dubbed trailers, so good luck to you in parsing out the dialogue from Con el Odio en el Piel. The Synapse team have no such problems, as their DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix is well-balanced and keeps the roughness of the varying aural treatments at bay.

All you get from Synapse's disc is the previously mentioned, above-average commentary with Mike, Chris and Eddie, whilst Trailer War offers up a feature-length alternate track hosted by Lars and Zack plus an assortment of minor bonuses. The Drafthouse duo are more scene-specific than the Synapse trio, whose interest for Ms. 45 carried over all the way into the trailer for They Call Her One Eye. However fun and fascinating their observations can be, Zack and Lars are less concrete for the most part in trying to place context and trivia to their titles. The best anecdotes tend to be relayed stories from screenings, friends and past experiences, whether it's the late Welcome Home, Brother Charles and Penitentiary director Jamaa Fanaka's graduation from South Central thug to film school student, the mystery behind Al Adamson's death or Zack's discovery of a used Starcrash VHS in an Augusta, GA pawn shop. At no point do they mention the MST3k team's immortal discovery of Mitchell, which is kind of commendable, but at no point do they recommend the viewer take the giddy Ozploitation crash course that is Not Quite Hollywood!, which covers a lot of the trivia for The Man from Hong Kong that Lars and Zack seemingly mumble through.

Speaking of which, Machete Maidens Unleashed! interview subject and Trailers from Hell creator Joe Dante appears in a 13-minute interview which once again reaches back to Dante's years editing film trailers at New World, discussing the many sleights of hand and contradictions in his job. There's nothing revelatory here for any hardcore genre fans who own Piranha or the Mark Hartley doc, but Dante is always a welcome presence and sincere in his appreciation for the genre. Lars Nilsen goes takes us "Behind the Scenes at AGFA" in a 4:30 piece that succinctly states the organization's preservationist manifesto and but will hopefully go a little deeper in future Trailer War installments than just one wing. A theatrical trailer for this compilation of theatrical trailers(!) is included alongside previews for the rest of the Drafthouse Films catalog, including the Zack Carlson-championed cheese of Miami Connection (1987) and Ted Kotcheff's 1971 Aussie cinema milestone Wake in Fright. All of the extras are presented in 1080i HD, plus there's a hidden extra in 1080p that raincoat devotees will have a ball or two with.

Movie grades: 4.5/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 3.5/5 (Trailer War).
Video grades: 4/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 2.5/5 (Trailer War).
Audio grades: 4/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 2/5 (Trailer War).
Extras grades: 4/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 3.5/5 (Trailer War).
Final grades: 4.5/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 3.5/5 (Trailer War).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ted (2012)

(R/unrated, 2012, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, street date: December 11, 2012, SRP: $34.98)


Speaking as both a casual filmgoer and critically-minded gatekeeper, it sucks to admit when your expectations are low in terms of watching a movie. Anticipating or planning to see a film shouldn’t warrant the kind of resignation that compels someone to make a reservation to a fast food restaurant, but there are occasions when you feel like there aren’t any better options. I’ve been a proud movie junkie for as long as I could place a tape in a VCR, but my feelings about popular contemporary cinema doesn’t fill me with the promise I once had as a child. Certain movies I’ve respected even as I lambasted them, others caught me by surprise and were discernible enough to become an instant favorite (classic, maybe?), and countless many I've never needed to revisit in my lifetime. Seeing the good in something like Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive, a liberating blast of tasteless comic splatter grounded by a sincere affection for characters and story, way back when I was a preteen, I get more frustrated than I care to be when a huge percentage of movies made these days don’t give me a clear reason to engage with them. Even worse, they can fail completely to entertain in the purest, popcorn-and-soda sense of the term.

Lofty as I just sounded, I brought this up because Ted is one of those movies that uses my hopes as the bar in a continuing series of cinematic limbo tournaments. And Seth MacFarlane is the master of ceremonies.

I confess to giving up on Family Guy a long time ago, around the time it birthed out clone programs in the superior American Dad and the more direct spin-off The Cleveland Show. MacFarlane seemingly gave the people what they want, which is a dependable show biz stratagem, except that I felt like things were already stuck in a rut creatively. Feeling that the show was overstaying its welcome, I became susceptible to the competition from other networks. My nose for irreverence and shamelessness in comedy had reached the point where I just felt there were consistently funnier programs on Comedy Central (Reno 911!), Cartoon Network (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Children’s Hospital), Starz (Party Down) and FX (Archer, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

However, I’m not one of those easy MacFarlane bashers. I honestly believe this man has bona fide comic chops that were put to side-splitting use on televised roasts, SNL hosting gigs, Robot Chicken guest slots and supporting performances. I wasn’t too jaded to admire his voice-over role in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, mostly because Guillermo Del Toro, for all his visionary gifts, has just as much humor and pop culture savvy as MacFarlane (watch Hellboy II and see if you can guess which shots echo 1980s Peter Gabriel videos). For all the salient points made about his undeniable derivations and ADHD tangents, these are not necessarily flaws worthy of crucifixion. I’ve been a long time fan of Better Off Dead… because of its cartoon-oriented audacity in a flesh-and-blood world, and the flights of fancy they summon have a line on what MacFarlane does in the present. I can even leave John Cusack, Curtis Armstrong and, if my arm were twisted, Diane Franklin out of the equation and still admire it.

Not only that, but Seth MacFarlane as a singer/composer has a genuine affection for swinging tunes beyond the confines of overexposed TV themes.

And yet I drifted away from his Fox programming block aware that as subversive as he can get, watching MacFarlane take more assured risks gave me such a greater appreciation that a typical Sunday night would likely feel like a cosmic anal raspberry on my intelligence.

MacFarlane’s belated feature debut Ted would appear to be the perfect encapsulation of this push-and-pull attitude I’ve gotten accustomed to. The premise is a mix of comforting sardonic convention and ribald yet sincere absurdity with definite pluses in both elements. Following his gigs with Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay, Mark Wahlberg demonstrates again an undeniable ease with screwball comedy and a playful self-effacement with regards to his Boston roots. No stranger to MacFarlane’s world, Mila Kunis plays against the raunchy material winningly straight. And the creator of and disembodied voice behind the titular stuffed boor is ready with moments of hilarity that molest your funny bone like a dog in heat instead of merely giving it a tickle.

Whimsy and offense do the Tube Snake Boogie throughout the film as early as the Patrick Stewart-narrated prologue. It’s Christmastime in Beantown circa 1985, and lonely boy John Bennett is not allowed to join in any reindeer games, especially when the neighborhood tots rein in on the presence of the one Jewish kid on the block and beat on him like a wounded deer. Yearning for a permanent best friend, Johnny unwraps a teddy bear and eventually makes an innocent wish for it to come alive so he can have a genuine Thunder Buddy for life. The next magical morning sees Teddy walking and talking in typically adorable fashion, and you know what that means: instantaneous and not at all impertinent celebrity coverage! But no matter, because 15 minutes of fame has nothing on the lifelong bond between a boy and his bear.

Years later, the friendship between the now 35-year-old John (Wahlberg) and his conveniently vulgar toy companion (MacFarlane) has grown clearly co-dependent in all the wrong ways. A rental car agent on the verge of a branch manager promotion promising $38,000 a year and connections with Tom Skerritt (of Up in Smoke and The Dead Zone esteem), John is also approaching an anniversary with his PR relations girlfriend Lori (Kunis), who’d rather not see Bennett holding himself back via pot-fueled regression sessions with Ted in front of the TV, where the 1980 flop feature adaptation of Flash Gordon plays in heavy rotation. Furthermore, Ted has become the Snuggles mascot’s lecherous doppelganger, cuddling up to hookers and white trash blondes whilst making smart-alecky ridicule of practically everything he can think of, from women to retards to Mexicans to Adam Sandler's "just awful" Jack and Jill.

Lori panics after a romantic dinner with John results in coming home to find one of Ted’s slutty playmates made like an untrained dog in a John Waters film. John offers to help Ted strike out on his own, from finding his own apartment to inadvertently landing a job at a grocery store. Despite all the compromises to maturity and woman love that John takes heed of, he’s mentally Krazy Glued on the couch, sharing a bong with his Brother Bear as Ted Danson narcissistically recounts all the behind-the-scenes debauchery in a Cheers DVD box set interview. John betrays Lori for the last time and forces Ted to develop some shred of sentiment, just in time for a trio of straw villains to make their moves on both Lori (Joel McHale as Rex, Lori’s smarmy vulture of a boss poised to swoop on her for the rebound) and Ted (Giovanni Ribisi as obsessed fan Donny and Aedin Mincks as his chubby son Robert).

Fundamentalist sociopath Donny and his equally dangerous seedling appear like baddies out of Beethoven or its first sequel to drive the film into the danger zone. The height of the former’s madness is a serpentine dance routine in front of a Tiffany music video, a coincidental reminder of that disturbed fan documentary named after the tune Donny dances to (I Think We’re Alone Now).

On both technical and performance levels, Ted is surprisingly strong. The occasionally motion-captured CG animation of Ted is expressive and seamless, with leads Wahlberg and Kunis offering convincing chemistry not just with each other, but also with the digitally-rendered Ted. Mark Wahlberg is the movie’s own major league pitch-hitter, giving MacFarlane’s humor the type of precision, charm and devotion that eclipses all that had come before on TV. Committing fully to the premise and demonstrating such looseness, Wahlberg feels right at home bouncing off MacFarlane’s bawdiness, not just in the vaunted gag where he rapidly tries to narrow down the name of Ted’s bimbo squeeze, but even with bits that reference Joan Crawford and Rita Coolidge from out of the 1980s ether. And despite the boys’ club attitude all too eager to treat Lori as a stumbling block towards growing up, the lovable Mila Kunis refuses to condescend or slip into easy malice.

Eventually, the pot smoke clears and it becomes plain that for all the touches of classic sentimental uplift, third act machinations and convincing live actors, you’ve just toked up another obvious MacFarlane joint. He’s as tangential as ever in his approach to easy gags, with John having a flashback to that scene in Airplane! which memorably sent up Saturday Night Fever, a delightful cameo from “half-Muslim” chanteuse Norah Jones where she gets blamed for 9/11 by her fuzzy one night stand (“Actually, you weren't so bad for a guy with no penis”) and a bronzed Lance Armstrong testicle which leads to a reference to a certain almond candy slogan. Jabs at Katy Perry and Brandon Routh which have been no doubt made with sharper witticisms before prove bland as punch lines here. MacFarlane gets a protracted fight scene between John and Ted which harkens to the standby Peter vs. the Giant Chicken bouts from Family Guy, the one moment where overt predictability is forgiven because, by virtue of Wahlberg and MacFarlane’s Everyschmuck teaming, it works like gang bangers.

If you think that the last sentence was an easy swing at deviant humor, that’s primarily because MacFarlane (aided in screenwriting by regular Family Guy writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) does coax some unabashedly bawdy laughter time and again. Ted’s refreshingly normal existence as a burnt-out celebrity (“This is how the cast of Diff'rent Strokes must feel”) doesn’t stifle his penchant for finding creative ways to disgust, degrade and deadpan his way through a depressingly blue-collar world. Hand lotion and parsnips will forever be viewed with suspicion thanks to his grocery store antics. No one will ever throw a teddy bear in a business suit and expect not to subconsciously hear Ted’s honest gripe that “I look like something you give to your kid when you tell him Grandma died.” And wait until the movie offers up its one moment of R-rated fan service in the midst of a coke-fueled free-for-all, one instigated by the “Savior of the Universe” himself, only to forever taint children’s precious memories of Garfield.

Like Flash Gordon, MacFarlane is, to quote from the book of Ted, “a study in contrast.” He has enough of a grasp of context to make a damn good zinger involving Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but he can’t refrain from the pointless junk culture allusions that have now become a crutch for bad Train singles. Finally crafting character moments that ought to carry the movie in lean 90 minute fashion, there’s no real need for him to pad it up with a jarring car chase finale that shows precious little mischief. Deploying a gay joke which happily lands a silent walk-on from one of the early faces of modern comedy’s douchebag fulfillment nadir, you still have to put up with thudding “no homo” asides and shrill secondary characters like the aforementioned bimbo girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and little Robert who are merely inconsequential devices meant for scorn. And as self-effacing and, yes, subtle as he can be at points, the multi-faceted MacFarlane cashes in his clout to make a feature debut that doesn’t just make me feel like I never missed much since the last full Family Guy episode slipped near my radar, but also makes the glib Adam Sandler smackdown seem frustratingly prophetic.

The cuddly, crass Ted is hilarious enough to put That’s My Boy to shame, no contest, but I truly hope that MacFarlane proves himself the equivalent of Yogi Berra in our mainstream comedy ballpark.


The Blu-Ray and DVD releases of Ted provide an extended cut of the film which for the most part either adds to the prologue, including some unused blue banter with John’s parents (Ralph Garman, Alex Borstein) and more motivation for Donny, or flatters Joel McHale’s Rex with some additional lusty behavior. The 1.85:1 image of the Blu-Ray (1080p, AVC MPEG-4 encoding) is perfect given that an HD Panavision camera was used for the majority of the film; even with all of the various natural lighting techniques (the turquoise glow of an aquarium, the many lamp lights in restaurants and hotels), there’s no drop off in fine background detail or any bogus color palettes/flesh tones. You’ll know how good it is by just how potently Ted fits into the scenery without any major pixel-related dead giveaways. The DTS 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack utilizes Walter Murphy’s ebulliently jazzy score to its full appeal, with noticeable multi-channel separation during more atmospheric moments of party and peril. Optional Dolby 2.0 tracks are presented in Spanish, French or descriptive English voiceover captioning for the sight-impaired (all three languages make up the subtitle features, too.

Exclusive to the BD edition are 15 minutes of deleted scenes, a nice percentage of which compose the discarded B-plot when Lori decides to give in to Rex’s advances. A karaoke bar courtship proves the calm before the thunder that rolls once Lori returns to Rex’s swanky abode. Much less nauseous but more unmemorable is the attempted romance between two of John’s co-workers, a funny foreigner and a bubbly blonde, during the cokehead Flash Gordon soiree, which also yields unused bits involving Ted in a washing machine and John’s hyper-awkward small talk with various partygoers. Another BD-only bonus is a ten-minute reel of alternate lines showcasing MacFarlane coming up with a batch of equally hit-or-miss ad libs. Expect a random shout-out to Australian actress Toni Collette, some hilarious throwaway lines regarding Ted’s embarrassed “dapper” job-hunting look and the end-of-feature highlight allowing Ted to riff on the Cookie Monster, Barack Obama and Christopher Hewett (of Mr. Belvedere) in multiple attempts to sway John to ditch Lori for Flash Gordon.

The gag reel is readily available on either format for the eternal joy of those aware of Mila Kunis’ spontaneous giggle fits. MacFarlane makes a wager at one point that if she can complete a dinner conversation with a straight face, he’ll never force her to sing on Family Guy ever again (remember Mila-as-Meg doing Liesl from The Sound of Music?). At that point, Wahlberg is the one struggling not to break character as Kunis desperately tries to move the scene forward. Throughout both the gag reel and alternate lines, one can see all the various digitized incarnations of Ted from an innocuous still image to a sentient monster seemingly made of either lead, mimetic poly-alloy or chocolate (talk about a Pooh Bear!).

A three-part behind-the-scenes documentary (at 25 minutes) pays further attention to the live integration of Ted to great effect. The leads recall alternating between acting with a hand-controlled live-size teddy, a pair of eyes connected to a rod stand and, of course, nothing at all. MacFarlane’s off-camera motion capture acting can be glimpsed in screen-to-shot comparisons. Finally, the VFX artists acknowledge the post-production techniques used to give Ted a clear physical presence, like a grayscale model of Ted which can be used to simulate a variety of actions like running, jumping and, of course, boning. Hardcore devotees of the Teddy Bear Scuffle can watch an isolated featurette on the rendering of that scene in a BD-exclusive six-minute short.

The scene-specific audio commentary accompanying the theatrical cut is provided by MacFarlane, co-writer Alec Sulkin and an on-the-clock Wahlberg (he bids farewell a quarter of the way into the film). MacFarlane carries the track with his casually witty, alternately self-aggrandizing/self-effacing recollections of producing his first feature. He’s as keen to make fun of whatever digital tweaking was (or wasn’t?) used on McHale’s Rex as he is to point out an Indiana Jones poster was pasted in for certain background shots to preserve continuity. Wahlberg’s early departure is unfortunate, but MacFarlane and Sulkin continue as good foils for each other, striking a thorough balance between dry camaraderie and candid observation.

The BD combo pack provides both the DVD copy and an insert guiding you to either downloading a digital copy or accessing an Ultraviolet stream. Both the BD and DVD start off with previews for the likes of Death Race 3, Hit and Run and Bring It On: The Musical. Let’s bring that limbo bar down a little bit lower now, MC MacFuckface.


Movie grade: 3.5/5.
Video grade: 4.5/5.
Audio grade: 4/5.
Extras grade: 3.5/5.
Final grade: 3.5/5.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Enchantéd, Pt. I: A Diane Franklin Retrospective Tribute

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin
I. Introduction

Welcome to Irving Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona, the mecca of my mid-1990s adolescence. A hip-in-hindsight gym teacher named Schumacher (I will politely refrain from further connotations) introduces unsuspecting students to Elvis Costello for the first time in between Martika (not “Toy Soldiers,“ but her cover of “I Feel the Earth Move”) and Marcia “Electric Boogie” Griffiths. At nearby Taylor Jr. High, drama club students prove themselves not too ashamed to rock out to debut albums by Slipknot and System of a Down. A kamikaze camcorder-lensed production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” thrusts an awkward but passionate boy to his first lead acting role. That boy develops his first genuine crush on a cute girl named Dawn with long brown hair and braces, exhibits mad flash card skills and gets his first underage sip of grape wine from his older sister’s friend. To this day, I have exhausted a variety of cough medicines in a futile attempt at recapturing that first transcendent, fruit of the vine-flavored hiccup.

Phys ed mix tapes and childhood prohibition were not the only surprise influence on my adult tastes. One of my teachers was kind enough to reward us with a film screening. Actually, there were two of them, and my memory serves me well enough to recall the features on display. One was animated, the other live-action, but the two of them remain benchmark moments in the progress of an adolescent movie geek.

The earliest was The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie from 1979, which was essentially an anthology film celebrating animator Chuck Jones’ most memorable gags and concepts. The fresh hare of Bel Air himself introduced several classic shorts in a straightforward manner, exposing me to the madcap highs of Duck Amuck, Long-Haired Hare, Robin Hood Daffy, and What’s Opera, Doc? for the very first time. There wasn’t enough time to get around to the Road Runner part of the feature, which I soon came to realize was just a lengthy montage of foiled Wile E. Coyote traps that taught me further lessons about the economy of a six-minute cartoon. The Bugs shorts were brilliant, though, especially the ones where he used opera to vanquish his enemies under the deathless alter egos of Leopold and Brunhilde.

Although live-action and animation proved easy to integrate based on the evidence of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I was curious as to whether or not you could graft the timing and inventiveness of the Looney Tunes world upon a flick set in the physical world. I wished my real life could have the unpredictability of a Bugs Bunny short so bad, but I wasn’t going to get crushed by a boulder to live such a dream. As for dressing in drag…well, I considered that open to negotiation.

I don’t recall who it was, sadly, as I feel I owe this person some unresolved show of kindness. But there was teacher with a VHS copy of Better Off Dead… (not some previously viewed copy of the initial Key Video tape, but the “20th Century Fox Selections” reissue which isolated a color copy of John Cusack’s trash-bound mug for the cover). I may have noticed it on Comedy Central a few times, but watching it in a classroom and in the aftermath of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie proved that one could indeed make a consistently animated teen comedy and not be named John Hughes. It guess it’s an advantage if you refer to yourself as Savage Steve Holland (hey, I remember him from the WWF!) and were responsible for the cheeky Whammy interstitials from the old game show Press Your Luck (“It’s coming to me now, I see financial disaster in your future!”).

Better Off Dead… was entertaining enough as a funhouse-mirror grotesquerie of teenage romantic fantasy, with oddball flights of fancy and droll comic performances from a cabal of fine character actors. And yet, before I could finish singing “Jacques the Monkey,” along come a face I never saw before on film, a beatific and vivacious creampuff adorned with a curly brown crown. Her eyes equaled her locks in their sepia allure, and a wider shot displayed a set of gams that were hotter than damn. A natural beauty if there ever was one, I came to remember the character as Monique Junot, the French princess of Northern California who proved the equal of Cusack’s Lane Meyer in terms of beguiling, offbeat charisma. Who was the young woman behind this unsung teen dream from what I learned was a certified cult classic? What enchantress initially had me begging for mercy but finally compelled me to cry “Enchanté”?

Being a mere child of the 1980s didn’t stop Diane Franklin from captivating my lovesick preteen self, which must have happened to a select group of people who genuinely grew up during that decade.

At the age of 19, Franklin was an NYU student who bailed out on a chemistry test to audition for a Golan/Globus production called The Last American Virgin, writer/director Boaz Davidson’s Americanized remake of his 1978 foreign hit Lemon Popsicle. Having pursued modeling, theatre and commercial acting ever since her early childhood, Franklin’s 1982 feature debut was as striking for its female lead’s vibrant beauty as it was for her character Karen’s devastating choice in an affair of the heart. The anticlimactic downer of that film was succeeded by the more tragic trajectory of the same year’s Amityville II: The Possession, in which she played Patricia Montelli (a character based loosely on the oldest daughter of the tragic DeFeo clan), the sheltered female progeny of a wildly dysfunctional family whose indignities rendered her both dead before her time and a lost soul.

It took one little-seen trek to New Zealand (1984’s Second Time Lucky), two 1983 movie-of-the-week productions (Deadly Lessons, Summer Girl) and a turbulent battery of overseas screen tests for Milos Forman’s Amadeus before Diane Franklin went to read for what by all rights should have been her breakthrough role: Monique Junet in Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead… At the very least, we could’ve seen a spike in the number of 13-year-old boys all over the country learning a second language. It grossed an underwhelming $10 million domestically despite having a kid brother in the next year’s One Crazy Summer (a deleted scene from which reunited Franklin with John Cusack). It’s a testament to the film’s post-theatrical fan base in my mind that someone at Irving Elementary School in red state Arizona thought to screen this film in front of me at one of the most quietly desperate periods in my entire life.

Growing up in the waning VHS era under the tutelage of Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever was invaluable, but I never had the chance to taste the complete fruits of Franklin’s career as a boy. The only other title I noticed on cassette was one that gave her top billing alongside Bud the C.H.U.D. and Mary Bland, a 1986 Charles Band production called TerrorVision, and it had me thinking she could have been a glorious chameleon in the tradition of all the more prominent performers I watched adamantly, from Brad Dourif to Michael Moriarty. 1989’s blockbuster comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was her last shot at prominence, playing one of the comely English princesses rescued from the “Royal Ugly Dudes” but with criminally less screen time than was afforded to Monique. I don’t believe she was included in the cast list for Savage Steve Holland’s 1989 effort How I Got Into College in either Videohound or the Video Movie Guide. I struggled not to forget her upon transitioning to the DVD realm, where I finally saw The Last American Virgin for the first time, and my memories Better Off Dead… helped in that regard.

Diane Franklin was never part of the “Brat Pack” of 1980s icons nor was she pigeonholed in any particular genre. The character roles I would have liked to see outside of mere love interests were minimal. The nineties allowed her a quiet retreat into a wedded life with screenwriter Ray De Laurentis and the birth of two kids (one of whom, Olivia, currently directs short films and is a big Flight of the Conchords fan to boot). Diane has nowadays kept acting and producing all in the family, with her time devoted to coaching young actors, public speaking, taking part in conventions, and just being a loving, nurturing mother. But there is a generation who remember Mrs. Franklin with the greatest fondness, and have in turn passed on her filmography to future children of the world. These children are in their late-twenties and have a great deal of adoration and respect for the wonderful world of cinema and their participants, letter grade denominations be damned. You didn’t need to rely on the Internet to become a seeker or scholar, but you had to have tons of misspent free time and a rapacious hunger for strange new or old worlds on celluloid.

This is why I’m really gracious and deathlessly enthused that Diane Franklin has written and self-published a micro-memoir called Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s. Having previously tested the waters as a Collector’s Edition item at conventions, said book is available in paperback or Kindle form exclusively at Amazon. I guess some may consider it marginal, but it is such a rich read. More than just a nostalgic embrace of and astutely observational review of a show biz career, Diane’s book can be taken as an educational guide for aspiring stars, a copious supply of fan-friendly anecdotes and an experience-certified critique of her many ingénue/siren personae. A lot of sincerity, passion and hindsight went into this book, which is also graced with various photos of Diane throughout the years and prologues from both Michael Picarella, director of a 2006 independent movie Punchcard Player that starred Mrs. Franklin as “Sweetheart,” and Savage Steve Holland himself, who indeed removes the quotes and pays respect to her exuberance.

(Side note: Franklin can be heard on Cult Radio a Go Go hosting a program celebrating fellow “Babes of the 1980s.” Guests I’ve heard from thus far include the likes of Mary Woronov, Amanda Wyss and Kimmy Robertson, all three of whom co-starred with Franklin in many of the previously mentioned movies).

The time is right for a retrospective in honor of Diane Franklin, but I can’t say this one is going to be fully complete, either. Not available commercially are the TV movies Deadly Lessons, a murder mystery which co-starred Ally Sheedy and Bill Paxton, or Summer Girl, wherein Franklin plays a malevolent babysitter named Cinny with designs on Barry Bostwick (Kim Darby of Better Off Dead… plays his wife, with no boiled bacon or raisin gruel in sight). Olivia De Laurentis’ The Adventures of Lass trilogy screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival but are not within my own reach (when she directs a feature-length masterpiece, I'll expect Criterion to pay attention). Of her handful of TV appearances, I was more successful finding a Charles in Charge episode where she plays a Yugoslavian exchange student than the Freddy’s Nightmares episode “The Bride Wore Red.”

Seeing as though this site is called Mind of Frames, I will make the focus exclusively on the movies Diane Franklin starred in from 1982’s The Last American Virgin, which will be my first time watching it since my initial DVD review on, to 1989’s How I Got Into College. I will also throw in a bonus screening of Michael Picarella’s Punchcard Player and a more in-depth review of Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s. I am eager to also get extra reviews written on the site after what seems like a prolonged absence, some of recent titles and others of vintage. But with this introduction out of the way, expect a sincere, thorough and satisfying critical look at one of the greatest babes of the 1980s who has not only aged stunningly in her fifties but can still provide positive inspiration and fond nostalgia on the printed page as well as the projected image.

There’s a hurricane on its way and you can call it Karen…Karen with a K.