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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

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Adam Jahnke - Main Page

A funny thing happened on the way to this column. Well, funny in a you-can-either-laugh-or-kill-yourself kind of way. My old workhorse of a computer, which has seen me through the writing of two books, twenty TV episodes, probably about a dozen scripts and an unholy number of reviews, finally decided it had had enough. Considering some of the poorly chosen words I forced it to process, I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did. I'm sure if artificial intelligence was a reality, it would have broken up with me long ago.

At any rate, the switchover to the new computer resulted in a rather unwieldy backlog of DVDs that I'd had every intention of reviewing long before now. So instead of doing the three or four individual columns I'd originally planned for these, I thought I'd just shoehorn them all into one. This'll be an odd assortment of stuff, even by my standards, so you may want to consider a palate-cleansing drink of water between titles.

Afro Promo: Black Cinema Trailers - 1946-76

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Afro Promo: Black Cinema Trailers - 1946-76
1946-1976 (2006) - Other Cinema DVD

I love trailer compilation discs but sometimes a comp's focus on a specific genre or moviemaking style makes watching the entire disc in one sitting a bit exhausting. That pitfall is mostly avoided in Other Cinema's new disc Afro Promo, a wide-ranging collection of trailers from movies both big and small with one common denominator. Each of the films touches in some way on the representation of African-Americans. They are:

The Harlem Globetrotters, St. Louis Blues, Edge of the City, The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, A Patch of Blue, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!, Cool Breeze, The Last Safari, Zulu, Soul to Soul, Sounder, The Learning Tree, Putney Swope, Slaves, Mandingo, Boss Nigger, Blacula, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, Black Mama, White Mama, Black Girl, Lady Sings the Blues, Sparkle, The Great White Hope, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, The Greatest, Car Wash, Norman... Is That You?, Cooley High and A Piece of the Action.

As you can tell, that's a fairly diverse lineup but by no means comprehensive. You can probably think of half a dozen movies right off the bat that you wish were included but aren't. But Afro Promo doesn't pretend to be a definitive collection of the history of black cinema. As curated by Jenni Olson and Karl Knapper, the assortment provides a fascinating look not only at how African-Americans have been portrayed on screen but how these portrayals were then marketed to a mass audience. The early trailers are particularly telling in this regard, especially the "script girl" trailer for Edge of the City and the promo for A Raisin in the Sun, with safe, clean-cut white folks assuring the middle-class audience that it's OK to see these "race pictures". And while you can second-guess the selection on this disc until the cows come home, the trailers that are included are entertaining, illuminating, and often very effective. I'd never heard of the documentary/concert film Soul to Soul before but it looks great and I'd love to see it. A veritable who's who of black celebrities is represented, with everyone from Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor to Redd Foxx, Muhammad Ali, and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson.

The clips are playable in one of two ways, either divided into specific categories such as Sports, Music, and Blaxploitation or in a "play all" feature. Selecting "play all" also launches you into the two bonus short films immediately following the main feature. These experimental shorts are similar to those found as bonuses on Other Cinema's The 70s Dimension disc but neither are as interesting as those found there. Roger Beebe's Famous Irish Americans feels like a film school project made after hours on the public access station equipment, while Christopher Harris' Reckless Eyeballing is slightly more artistic but far too long. I doubt you'll play either of them more than once, if that. The only real bonus is a brief but interesting liner notes essay by Yale University's Terri Francis. Video and audio quality is about what you'd expect from a collection of trailers dating back 25 years and more.

Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/C/D

Friday the 13th: From Crystal Lake to Manhattan Ultimate Edition DVD Collection

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Friday the 13th: From Crystal Lake to Manhattan Ultimate Edition DVD Collection
1980-1989 (2004) - Paramount

It's fascinating to me that the Friday the 13th saga inspires such devotion among its fans. They aren't the best horror films out there. They're not the scariest, not the goriest, and lord knows they aren't the most original. By most rational and conservative standards of aesthetic judgment, none of them are good films. But people flocked to them. The series made Paramount a mint during the 80's, after which they sold the franchise to New Line (who, apart from teaming up Jason with Freddy, hasn't really done much with the property). I watched 'em and while it would be a stretch to say I liked them, I enjoyed the experience of watching them. How's that for a cop-out of an opinion?

Obviously I enjoyed them enough to warrant watching them all yet again (some for the fifth or sixth time, I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit) when Paramount released this so-called Ultimate Edition DVD Collection. How do they hold up? Well, let's take a look at each. Letter grades are kind of irrelevant for these movies, so I'll give 'em between one and four machetes depending on how enjoyable they are on their own terms. And since these are basically all the same movie (starting with the second, we open with a quick recap of the story so far, like that matters, then the teens arrive, then they're killed), I'll summarize the movies Friends-style for you.

Friday the 13th - The First One or The One with Jason's Mom. The bar isn't exactly set high in this but at least it establishes the pattern of all the subsequent films fairly quickly. Still a fun ride thanks to Tom Savini's makeup effects and one of the all-time great shock endings in a horror movie. That final gotcha is so good, it literally makes you forget (or at least, forgive) the 90 minutes of banality that precede it. (3½ machetes)

Friday the 13th, Part 2 - The One Where Jason Wears a Bag on His Head. A pleasant throwback to the simpler days of horror sequels, when you really just needed to make the first movie over again in order to please the fans. Still a fun movie, with the wheelchair guy taking a cleaver to the face and poor Crazy Ralph getting a barbed wire tracheotomy. (3 machetes)

Friday the 13th, Part III - The One in 3-D or The One Where Jason Gets His Hockey Mask. I've actually seen this in a theatre and in 3-D and if seen that way, this is the best of the series by far. It's a lot of fun seeing this stuff coming off the screen (and, like all good 3-D movies, the filmmakers ain't subtle about it). Even seen flat, like on this disc, I still think this is a blast. I love the moment when Jason shoots the girl with the spear gun. He's so non-chalant and unhurried about it. The kill perfectly captures the essence of the character for me. He's just this mindless hulk of a killing machine and he can't even be bothered to work up any excitement about it. (4 machetes)

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter - The One Where Corey Feldman Kills Jason. Oh, Tommy Jarvis, you poor troubled youth. Not a bad entry, with Tom Savini returning to lend a hand with the makeup and a young Crispin Glover busting a move on the dance floor. (2½ machetes)

Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning - The One Without Jason. A terrible movie with Tommy Jarvis, now a troubled teen, at the center of a new string of murders. This is neither fun nor funny and the lousy Scooby-Doo ending just adds insult to injury. (1 machete)

Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives - The One Where Jason Becomes Officially Immortal. Tommy Jarvis, will you never learn? Tommy (played by the third new actor in as many movies) accidentally revives Jason and spends the rest of the movie trying to stop him. A step up from the last one, which isn't hard, with a sense of humor about itself and arguably the best soundtrack of the series thanks to Mr. Alice Cooper (oh yeah, he's back! The man behind the mask!!!). (2½ machetes)

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood - The One with the Telekinetic Chick. Fan favorite Kane Hodder makes his first appearance as Jason in this entry. All of these movies had their battles with the MPAA but this one suffers more than most. Shoving Jason into Stephen King territory isn't a great fit but if the kills had a little more oomph, it might have been OK. As it is, this only has intermittent flashes of what could have been. (2 machetes)

Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan - The One Where... Well, Jason Takes Manhattan. Or at least, that's the idea. In practice, this is more like Jason Takes the Love Boat, with over an hour spent on a cruise ship carting our teens to the big city. Not a bad idea for injecting some new life into the series. After all, Jason had pretty much made his way around the entire circumference of Crystal Lake by now. But this is a weak finish for this set, with subpar makeup effects and lamer acting than usual. Hard to screw this up, too. With a title like this, all I needed to see to make me happy was Jason slashing his way through a crowded street, swinging his machete back and forth like a scythe. (1½ machetes)

Each disc holds two movies and they all look and sound pretty good, certainly better than most movies of comparable age, budget and reputation. Some fans will be disappointed that these aren't uncut and unrated versions of the films but that didn't bother me so much. I'm less and less happy with uncut and/or extended versions of films, so I'm satisfied to have these in their original theatrical versions. And sure, I'd love to have Part III available in 3-D if it looked good. But I've never seen an effective 3-D presentation on television, so I'm fine with the flat version here.

In terms of extras, the set is pretty darn good if not the home run fans had hoped for. A seemingly random assortment of films sport commentary tracks, most of which are worth a listen. Part III reunites actors Larry Zerner, Paul Kratka, Dana Kimmell and Richard Brooker, moderated by former DVD editor and current expert on all things Voorhees Peter Bracke. This is a lively track, a bit too lively in spots with all the participants talking over each other. Writer/Director Tom McLoughlin does a good job illuminating Jason Lives. Writer/director/makeup effects designer John Carl Buechler teams up with Kane Hodder on The New Blood and it's a good thing the disc includes the R-rated theatrical version, 'cause if it was the uncut version these guys would have a lot less to talk about. Finally, writer/director Rob Hedden does the honors for Jason Takes Manhattan. Why that one gets a commentary when neither of the first two do is a mystery.

The fifth disc in the set is reserved for additional extras, chief among them the multi-part documentary The Friday the 13th Chronicles. It's a good overview, with a wide range of interviewees, including original director Sean S. Cunningham, Savini, Betsy Palmer (Mrs. Voorhees), Hodder, Corey Feldman, and many more. Only Part V gets short shrift, with Feldman discussing his Sunday spent off from The Goonies filming his short prologue scene but nobody bothering to say whose bright idea it was to make a Friday the 13th sequel without Jason in the first place. Savini and Buechler discuss the effects of parts one, four and seven in the featurette Secrets Galore Behind the Gore, while various actors tell tales in Crystal Lake Victims Tell All. We do get a taste of the deleted gore in Tales From the Cutting Room, with comparisons of the original version with the release version and, in the case of Part VII, a rare glimpse at Buechler's uncensored effects. On the minus side, the featurette on Friday Artifacts and Collectibles isn't terribly illuminating and while all eight trailers are collected here, the disc packaging promises a look at the making of the trailers that fails to materialize.

In all, From Crystal Lake to Manhattan is a solid effort but hardcore fans will be left wanting more. Perhaps Pete Bracke should have been given the chance to produce the set himself, since if you want more information the best place to turn is his recent book Crystal Lake Memories, a beautifully produced, exhaustive volume that feels like it was dropped here from an alternate universe where the Friday the 13th movies are revered like the works of Hitchcock and Kubrick. But as it is, we can't really complain. Paramount's past treatment of the Friday series has been like a well-dressed man who farts in an elevator and tries to look around like somebody else must have been responsible. Given that, this box set is as impressive a presentation we're ever likely to see.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B-


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2005 (2006) - Destination Films/Jim Henson Company (Sony)

I knew I missed the late Jim Henson immensely but I didn't realize quite how much until I began to see the ads for MirrorMask, the elaborate new fantasy from the company that bears his name. My mind flooded with memories of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, imperfect films that I nevertheless adore. Both of those earlier films create entire worlds from the ground up that are utterly unlike anything else that had been put on screen up to that point. So it is with MirrorMask. Using a variety of cutting edge techniques, director/designer Dave McKean and screenwriter Neil Gaiman (familiar names to any self-respecting comic book aficionado) have brought to life a unique fantasy world that's light years away from previous fantasy landscape, including those envisioned by Henson himself.

Stephanie Leonidas stars as Helena, a teenage girl raised in a circus operated by her parents. The circus is forced to fold its tents when Helena's mother takes ill. While Helena and her father anxiously await word of her mother's fate, she slips into a parallel Dreamworld being overtaken by shadows since their ruler, the White Queen, fell into a deep sleep. Teaming up with a traveling entertainer named Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena embarks on a quest to find the MirrorMask, the stolen charm that might wake the Queen and restore balance to the Dreamworld.

The basic story structure is familiar from a thousand children's stories, from Labyrinth to The Wizard of Oz and beyond. But the visuals on display are anything but, ranging from simply pretty to downright eyepopping. Impressive as they are, McKean's achievement becomes even more astonishing when you realize that the film was made for relatively little money but more on that in a moment. I still miss the tactile sets, puppets and costumes of Henson's fantasies but McKean makes the CGI work for him rather than the other way around. The orbiting giants and the disturbing cats with human faces are certainly images that linger in the mind's eye long after the end credits have finished.

What's missing from MirrorMask is Henson's warmth and humanity. That kind of thing seemed to be second nature to him and it's those qualities that brought the Muppets to life, not the technology. Gaiman is an excellent writer but this is far from his best work. Gaiman and McKean's two great graphic novel collaborations, Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, show that they're more than capable of the same kind of empathetic storytelling that Henson was a master of. MirrorMask is more rote, as if Gaiman was asked to write something with that Neil Gaiman feeling.

Sony's MirrorMask DVD isn't advertised as a special edition and perhaps it isn't one, but for a standard edition it's quite nice. Both the 1.85:1 anamorphic image and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound are top notch, doing an excellent job of bringing the film to life. Special features are surprisingly abundant, including an above average commentary by McKean and Gaiman. The Making of MirrorMask is divided into a number of brief featurettes, including on-camera interviews with Gaiman, McKean, executive producer Lisa Henson, and the cast. Apart from the standard talking head bits, MirrorMask also offers a few unique featurettes. Day 16 is a time-lapse video compressing an entire day's worth of production into two and a half minutes. Two key sequences are given a closer look at their development and production in Flight of the Monkeybirds and Giants Development. Questions and Answers provides 20 minutes of taped excerpts from Q&A sessions at both the San Diego Comic-Con and Sundance. Finally, the disc provides a sampling of poster and cover art. My favorite is the early mock-up they hung in their office "to prove to people they were really making a film".

Like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, MirrorMask is also an imperfect film. But it's an easier one to admire than it is to adore. It's a bit cold, a bit distant, and despite the wonders on screen, a bit too familiar. I'm not sure what younger audiences will make of the film but I'd be interested to find out, just as I'll be interested to see what Dave McKean does next.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/B+

On to Part Two

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