Friday, February 11, 2011

Weekend Cinema Listomania (Special Ghost in the Machine Edition)

Video Event of the Week: Might Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Life as We Know It, the bland and generic as its title romantic comedy starring Josh Duhamel and the desperately in need of better representation Katherine Heigl, be what we're talking about? Is VCI's DVD of The Prowler, the lesser known but terrific 1951 film noir thriller starring Van Heflin and directed by Joseph Losey, possibly in contention? Or, against the odds and all that is holy in this world, might Touchstone's respective disc editions of You Again (with Sigourney Weaver and Betty White in what the New York Times has raved about as "a rancid, misogynistic revenge comedy") by any chance be The One(s)?

All worthy, to be sure, with the obvious exception of that last, but for my money it simply has to be the Criterion Collection's splendid new Blu-ray update of David Cronenberg's deeply (typically?) disturbing 1983 sci-fi horror Videodrome, with James Woods and Deborah Harry.

Woods (not exactly cast against type) stars as the sleazeball programmer for a small cable network; Harry is a radio sex-therapist with a penchant for S&M. In the course of their relationship, they discover a pirate satellite broadcast of a grotesquely violent reality(?) torture porn show, and while they try to track down the source, they're simultaneously drawn into a shadowy underground world of paranoid conspiracies and -- eventually -- the kind of surrealistic bodily transformations that are the director's trademark. On the one hand, it's a fairly standard liebestod/meditation on the nexus of sex and death, but it's also a very ahead of its time (and depending on your sensibility) very funny media satire. Of course, like a lot of early Cronenerg, Videodrome betrays its low budget origins (particularly in some of the shall we say not stellar acting in the supporting roles) and even by its auteur's standards, the visual metaphors here -- the weirdly gynecological slit in a persons stomach that accepts a videocassette, the pistol that attaches itself biologically to the end of an arm (a handgun, get it?) -- are a little over the top (and as I said, disturbing). But you'll have a hard time shaking them, and they're in the service of a very carefully worked out script that's noticeably more coherent than some of the director's previous efforts; in a lot of ways, this is the first of Cronenberg's films that really works on more than just a conceptual level.

Oh, and yes -- Debbie Harry is naked a lot. Quite pleasantly.

Here's one of the original trailers (a better looking version of which appears in the Criterion set) to give you an idea.

The new Blu-ray features a beautifully cleaned-up high-def widescreen transfer of the unrated version, and there are the usual bonuses galore, including the aforementioned trailers, the complete unedited versions of some of the film-within-the-film videos, a couple of making-of docs, and an audio interview with special effects maven Rick Baker.

The bottom line: You can -- and very definitely should order Videodrome over here.

And I should add that Criterion's concurrently released Blu-ray update of Byron Haskin's 1964 Robinson Crusoe on Mars, an obviously more conventional sci-fi flick that nonetheless turns out to hold up surprisingly well...

...looks fantastic in its new transfer, and is also well worth your attention.

Okay, with all that out of the way, and because things are going to be relatively quiet around here until Monday, here's a fun and hopefully relevant little project to concentrate our minds:

Best or Worst Technology Gone Weird! Movie!!!

And my totally top of my head Top Five is...

5. The Twonky (Arch Oboler, 1953)

Absent-minded professor Hans Conreid doesn't know that the new TV set he bought is actually a mind-reading robot from the future with an authoritarian streak. It's a metaphor, obviously, but the film is played mostly for laughs, unlike the much better and much scarier Lewis Padgett short story it's based on.

4. The Invisible Boy (Hermann Hoffman, 1957)

Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet is sent into the past (i.e. 1957) to become the playmate of a lonely ten year old. Naturally, the two of them plot to take over the world.

3. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979)

In the 23rd century, a NASA satellite from the 70s merges with a damaged alien superprobe from another galaxy and heads toward Earth to sterilize the planet. The Changeling, an earlier episode of the original TV show, handled the same story with considerably more wit and imagination, although the movie remains a dazzling piece of kinetic art.

2. Desk Set (Walter Lang, 1957)

Efficiency expert Spenser Tracy brings a giant 50s electronic brain into the research department of a big TV network and everybody, including Katherine Hepburn, thinks the machine is out for their jobs. The usual wacky hijinks (and double entendres) ensue.

And the Numero Uno cinematic battle of Us versus It clearly is...

1. Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977)

A horny supercomputer decides it must have sex with Julie Christie or die. Granted, most of the men in the audience probably felt the same way, but still.

Alrighty, then -- and what would your choices be?


Gummo said...

Would the False Maria in Metropolis count as technology run amok? And of course THE classic computer gone amok is HAL from 2001.

Honorable TV mention to M-5 from the original Star Trek series.

A couple of comments on your choices:

Never seen The Twonky but the story, like so much Lewis Padget, is both darkly funny and damned scary. As I'm sure you know, Padgett was the pen name of the husband & wife sf/fantasy writing team of Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore, and they produced some of the best scifi stories of the 1940s, including 2 of my favorites, Mimsy Were the Borogroves and The Proud Robot. (Fun fact: one of the other pen names was Lawrence O'Donnell....)

Desk Set is one of the so-so Tracy-Hepburn movies. The director seems more interested in filling up the wide screen than in anything his actors are doing.

And Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- man, what a stinker. Not only slow & terminally dull, but since it was a bloated remake of one of the TV episodes, utterly pointless. I remember seeing the opening night of The Wrath of Khan and when the movie opened with the famous horn fanfare from the original TV theme, the theater erupted in cheers. That was enough to let us know that they got it right the second time.

Okay, I've rambled enough....

steve simels said...

I'm more of a fan of STTMP than some; on the big screen it's often quite gorgeous (I'm talking about the trip into V'Ger).

And if you haven't seen the restored version they did for the DVD, with F/X shots they didn't have time to put in initially finally there, you should check it out. It's still not a good movie, but it makes its case better.

Gummo said...

I saw the original on the big screen; and I've seen the restored version on DVD.

I'm sorry, the characters and their relationships are all wrong, the story is a retread and the movie comes to a complete halt time and time again so it can indulge in pointless visual masturbation. It's not a good movie and it's a terrible Star Trek movie.

Wrath of Khan, at a fraction of the budget and running time, was approximately a thousand times better.

On some things we must agree to disagree....

steve simels said...

On the other hand, it's a movie about people who spend their entire working lives watching stuff on television.

So in that regard it's very ahead of its time.

steve simels said...

Oh, and the Jerry Goldsmith score for STTMP is one of the greatest in the history of movies, boundlessly melodic and inventive.

Uberhack James Horner's for Wrath of Khan, not so much.

Shriner said...

I will always remember The Twonky for the lines about the "gaze-bo". For some reason, this is burned into my head.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, what? I'm stuck in a reverie of Debbie Harry in Videodrome.

... then again, what she (and James Wood) do to her flesh in that movie -- it's a crime against nature.


Brooklyn Girl said...

What ... no love for The Transformers? :-)

Elroy said...

I would have to put "Sleeper" on the list.

edward said...

Modern Times

brian morris said...

trippy music with movies are always good.

Faze said...

The Absent-Minded Professor.

And I always liked Desk Set. It's relaxed and spacious, and the wide screen means you never get the feeling that the characters are trapped by their dilemma, but that there's a big wide world of alternatives just outside the frame.

Dominic Cordisco said...


dave™© said...

For a good time, pick up the novelization of "STTMP". Credited to Roddenberry (but probably not) it really concentrates on the four main characters sitting around and fretting about how they're in the middle of something they don't really understand, probably are too old to be involved in, and aren't certain of how to finish - sort of like how the creative team of "STTMP" must have felt about the movie.