Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Cat's Meeeeeeeeoooow! More DVDs to Savor...

A little catch-up on current DVD delights you might have missed...

* I doubt many of you horror aficionados have missed this for any reason other than shortage of $, but The Val Lewton Horror Collection from Warner Bros. is an essential addition to any and all genre libraries, at last on DVD and (per my screening of two of the titles to date) looking exquisite. Producer Lewton and his collaborative creative partners were true cinematic alchemists, turning what should have been backlot shit into pure gold. Saddled with often absurd market-tested titles by parent studio RKO, Lewton and directors/editors/collaborators Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Mark Robson and writer DeWitt Bodeen (among others) maximized poverty-row budgets and raised hackles by tapping WW2 audience imaginations in ways they'd not been tapped before: the power of shadows, suggestion, and a what can only be called the poetry of dread inform every film in this collection. The Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, and the Boris Karloff trilogy of Isle of the Dead, Bedlam and The Body Snatcher live up to their legendary status, though the relatively unsung sui generis gems The 7th Victim, The Ghost Ship, and the heartbreaking, haunting The Curse of the Cat People are the standouts for me.

The latter in particular should put lie to the oft-repeated dogma that sequels are inherently inferior to their wellsprings: here, Lewton, Wise and Bodeen metamorphosed the studio-imposed sequel title into a vehicle for one of the most exquisite films about childhood ever made, punctuated with spectral visitations by Simone Simon as what might be either 'an imaginary friend' or a genuine spiritual familiar from the original film, and the genuine threat of adults who variously mistrust, misjudge, or harbor homicidal jealousy toward the little girl protagonist. It remains a startlingly engaging, moving experience, and is highly recommended, as is every title in this set. There's also a bonus documentary, Steve Haberman's Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, I'm looking forward to screening -- but only after I've revisited all the Lewton marvels herein.

(One caveat for contemporary (particularly young) viewers: The Lewton films are cinematic gems, but Lewton was also a man of letters. The literary bent of his nature, and that of his creative partners in these films, manifests in the dialogue and literary allusions (as has been often mentioned, I Walked With A Zombie is indeed a variation on Jane Eyre). At times, this characteristic comes across as being somewhat arch or pretentious, particularly for neophyte audiences unaccustomed to this kind of writing. Hang with it, and take it too as a precursor to the flavor writers like Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman bring to their work: it doesn't always 'sing' on the screen as it does on the page, but it is a stylistic conceit that informs some of the finest genre efforts from all generations. Don't turn a deaf ear to the films for this reason: go with them, you'll be surprised how rich the ride can be.)

A funny story my pal Joe Citro loves to tell: When Joe first made the trek out to the boonies of Marlboro, VT to visit my home (where I lived with my first wife Marlene, then known as Nancy, O'Connor, and our two children Maia and Danny), our chat at the kitchen table was interrupted by Maia and Danny tapping my leg. Looking up through their blonde bangs with earnest, shimmering eyes, Maia quietly said, "Daddy, can we watch Curse of the Cat People?"

Joe almost bust a fucking gut laughing; he could not believe his ears! (FYI, it was already among their favorite films, and is indeed a great little chiller for young and old.)

* Don't pass up renting or purchasing the unrated edition of Lords of Dogtown, either, thinking it's too mainstream or a bastardization of the rousing doc Dogtown and the Z-Boys. Director Catherine Hardwicke's followup to Thirteen was a terrific theatrical experience and it's even better on DVD with its additional four minutes or so of unseen material and the extensive lineup of bonus features, including a commentary track with the original Z Boys, almost all of whom also enjoy cameos in this docudrama adaptation of their own life stories.

Lest you dis this as just a Hollywood knockup of Dogtown and the Z-Boys and thus inherently lackluster, it must be emphasized how beautifully Hardwicke and screenwriter, Z-boy, and original Dogtown director Stacy Peralta tell the story while maintaining uncanny fidelity to the Z-boy skateboarders (Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Tony Hawk), their era, and their respective story arcs. All are given their due, speed bumps and all, with Elephant's soft-spoken John Robinson providing a quiet anchor as Peralta. The standout performance, though, is delivered by Emile Hirsch as Jay Adams, looking for all the world like Arch Hall Jr. in The Sadist but delivering a remarkable and heartfelt inhabitation of Jay Adams, who arguably survived the most extreme life changes. Hirsch has already proven himself as a young actor to watch, blending good looks and sharp intelligence with empathy, warmth, and a feral urgency in an already diverse spread of films, from the lead role in Michael Burke's harrowing backwoods coming-of-ager The Mudge Boy (not yet on DVD or video, and shot in Vermont) to playing a spoiled Senator's son who is, for all intents and purposes, George W. Bush as a youth in the Kevin Kline vehicle The Emperor's Club. From Jay's roots as the rawest and most reckless (and oddly creative) of all Z-Boys to his recognizing and refuting the exploitation awaiting them all and on to Jay's seemingly dead-end skinhead destination, Hirsch brings Jay to life; watch for Jay himself in a cameo early on as a waiter who steps on the unruly Z-Boys.

But arguably best of all here is Heath Ledger as the California surf genius (and burnout) who recognized the potential of, sponsored and 'made' the Z-Boys -- only to lose 'em once they blossomed. Ledger loses himself in the role of the Z-Boys's mentor, and delivers the kind of performance Academy Awards don't ever recognize, but should. This character's pitch-perfect narrative arc provides a parable for small-business entrepreneurs who bank on young talent only to see them snatched out-of-reach by bigger sharks once they fulfill their promise and are ready to fly. I've seen the same scenario play out in my own life time and time again in many industries and fields, just as I and my peers lived our own variations on the Z-Boys stories (in our respective path, comics); if for no other reason, this makes Lords of Dogtown necessary viewing.

More tomorrow!