Thursday, December 30, 2010

Disappointment in VHS land

I've mentioned before that I'm a rabid VHS collector. In fact, at this point, I have around 20 movies on VHS sitting in a stack that I haven't even had the chance to watch yet. As I continue to pick up movies, new acquisitions that I'm eager to watch end up pushing the older titles further down the stack.

The latest VHS pickup that I ended up watching just days after picking it up was the Richard Linklater film SubUrbia (not to be confused with the 1984 Penelope Spheeris cult classic that doesn't have the awkwardly capitalized vowel). I had always heard this film was pretty awesome and knew it never saw the light of the DVD (odd for a film produced in 1996). When I found it for a buck, I was so excited that it ended up finding its way to the top of the stack pretty quickly.

My high expectations certainly weren't met.

The film was a meandering, poorly structured and downright pointless tale of slacker life. I can understand that a movie about a bunch of teenagers whose lives don't have much direction could lack structure, but that doesn't mean it's going to be entertaining. For the first half, I slightly enjoyed SubUrbia, but it quickly wore out its welcome and by the last half-hour took a painfully bad turn toward drama.

I think I can sum up the problem with this movie pretty easily by what I did while rewinding the tape: I looked at the cast on the box and tried to pick out who was supposed to be the character I was supposed to like. I couldn't seem to find one.

A movie full of characters you probably won't end up caring about or liking.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The laziest blogger ever... oh, and do you remember A-Pix Entertainment?

Goddamn, I'm really terrible at this.

Having a full-time job, working on my web series 2 Dudes and a Sweet Prince, and just life in general has really left me with little time for my writing. I mean, it's left me plenty of time to leave facetious Facebook comments and listen to podcasts on my cell phone during slow days at work, but I've really been being lazy about my writings. I haven't even done a lame freelance how-to article for spare cash in months.

But I plan to get this blog on track for my New Year's Resolution. Expect to see some interviews, more reviews, and just random musings about movies. In fact, I'll start now.

The other day, my friend Andrew Shearer posted a picture from the 1997 z-grade horror classic Jack Frost, the direct-to-video slasher film where a psychopathic killer is turned into a killer snowman by an experimental acid. It's also a personal holiday favorite of mine and the picture reminded me it was time to break out the DVD, even if it was almost a week after Christmas.

Probably not her proudest moment.
Apart from being known for Shannon Elizabeth's first film role (where she's raped in a bathtub by a killer snowman - probably something that didn't manage to make it on her acting reel), the film is also known for it's tongue-in-cheek style and downright ludicrous special effects. I remember reading an interview with director Michael Cooney, where he briefly spoke of the film. Apparently, the script was written in a very serious tone with a multi-million dollar budget in mind, but when only a fraction of that could be raised, they took an entirely different approach and made it a comedy.

Of course, I'm not sure if everyone finds it to be funny, as the title alone can raise either smiles or scorn out of both the horror crowd or anyone that was forced to watch it back when A-Pix Entertainment's lenticular animation VHS boxes first hit video stores.

For a time in the mid '90s, it was impossible to escape A-Pix's amazing box art in video stores. Rarely did the film quality actually stand up to the luridly Photoshopped box art, but the movies were enjoyable in their own right. Most of the time, it was because they were campy good fun or just the most ludicrously bad horror film you could imagine (though usually of significant production value that would actually merit their slots on the shelves).

I've often found myself searching for A-Pix VHS boxes, since most of the gimmicky designs didn't get reprinted for DVD. The only one I've managed to pick up is Werewolf, the MST3k classic that features a werewolf who wears pants and at one point, drives a car. I wish I could remember more, but that would require actually watching the film again. I just bought it for the 3-D cover.

It appears A-Pix has gone bankrupt, but re-opened under different names a few times. They reappeared under the name Ardustry Home Entertainment in the early 2000s and started rereleasing a lot of their '90s catalog on DVD. Now, it appears Ardustry has become Allumination Filmworks. Regardless of what their name is, they will probably never be able to top the days where all you needed to sell a movie was a box that would change when people walked past it.


..and after.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Long time, no blog

Wow, it's been a long time.  I wrote most of this entry a month ago, but I've just been too busy to finish it up.

Sorry folks.  Looks like I'm getting off to a bad start with this blog, but I at least have good reason. While I was planning this blog to just be articles and reviews about film, I'm going to divert from that and post about what I've been up to this past month.

Looks like I'll have to take that "popcorn sales associate" off of this blog's description. On August 26th, I got word from the owners of the Warner Theatre (where I've been employed since 2006) was going to close on September 5th, 2010.

This was devastating news for so many different reasons. As a filmmaker and movie geek, I was sad because now there was no place in Morgantown (or even West Virginia) that played arthouse and foreign films and the theater where I had screened and premiered every film I've ever made was going to be gone. The Warner was also the main location in my "Faces of Schlock" segment "Mike Wuz Here." As a person, I was sad because I had to find a new job to pay to the rent and college students had just returned to town, so my prospects were a bit slim.

I spent 27 hours at the Warner during the last two days, because no one else could work or maybe did not want to. It was rough at times, but I had already grown very sick of hearing people come in and tell me how sad it was that we were closing and ask what they could do to save it. Unfortunately, they were mostly people I had never seen at the Warner in the four years I had worked there and they apparently didn't understand that a business like a movie theater can't survive unless people actually, you know, come to the movies.

In fact, I'm so sick of talking about why the Warner was closed, ways it can be saved and who's responsible, that I'm not going to do it. But if you're an eccentric millionaire who wants to keep the place open, contact the owners before they sell off all the original fixtures.

My last day there was really interesting. After getting home from a 15 hour shift the night before, I had a brilliant idea: Michael Raso of Alternative Cinema and The Film Photography Podcast had sent me two rolls of expired (in Nov. 1982!) Kodachrome 8mm film several months ago. Since Kodachrome is only going to be processed until the end of this year, I knew I had to shoot something soon. After giving up on about three different short films I was thinking of shooting on the film, I realized that it would be perfect for a documentary about the Warner. What better way to capture something that's going to be gone forever in 2010 than with a film stock that is going to be gone forever in 2010?

My friend and fellow "Faces of Schlock" director Andrew Shearer had suggested that I make a documentary, but I didn't want to do it because I was too close to the subject. But then I realized that there was a very specific subject I could focus on: the staff tradition of "signing" the Warner on your last night. I came up with how I was going to sign it at the same time I realized that making a documentary about the tradition would actually be interesting.

So, I came to my last day of work armed with Kodachrome film, a Eumig C3 8mm camera, Sylvania Sun Gun for lighting, and a Canon HF M300 HD camcorder for areas that would be difficult to shoot with the 8mm camera (or if the film was too far expired). I was going to make a short film on expired 8mm film and HD video while working my final shift at the theater, which was a rough 12 hours straight. It was a crazy idea, but I pulled it off... unfortunately, not without injury.

As soon as I got some time off in-between shows, I started shooting exteriors of the Warner. For interior shots I needed, I loaded the Eumig and put it on the same tripod mount as the Sun Gun. Just to explain, the Sylvania Sun Gun is a '60s-era movie light that is insanely bright and provides the correct color lighting for film. It also gets insanely hot and could probably blind you if you look at it directly for more than 10 seconds.

Well, I was trying to film shots in the Warner's concession stand/ticket booth (affectionately referred to as "the box") and some people came in the door. I had to take care of them, so I had to move the tripod out of the way to get to the counter. Well, the tripod was broken and tilted the light right down on to my arm, leaving one of the nastiest burns I've ever had. The customers then walked out without saying a word. I had to wrap my arm up, continue shooting and finish out the shift, despite repeated urging from others that it may require medical attention. I never went and it's already healed, so I think I made the right choice.

The film actually turned out quite neat. Despite expiring 27 years ago, it still yielded very good detail, but the colors were all tinted purple and there were some scratches (probably due to an unmaintained camera more than the film stock). It does give it an interesting look, though. The purple look reminds me of how aged 35mm film prints look... for example, the print of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" we screened at the Warner was purple and reeked of vinegar. I got the same results, but without an unfortunate odor. It appears that I can color correct the film to make it look a bit more proper too.

Expired Kodachrome 40 (with color correction test) from Justin Channell on Vimeo.

However, the telecine from Dwayne's Photo is a bit too soft for my taste. The real film print has better detail, but do remember that the wonder and reputation of Dwayne's is more on the chemical side of photography than the video and digital side. I can accept that their 8mm/Super8 transfers are mediocre, considering the fact they're the last lab to do Kodachrome and their film processing is practically flawless.

The middle of the day was pretty neat. There were a lot of people coming by to say their farewells and we even put out some sidewalk chalk to let people write messages. I wrote the owners' business number in front of the doorway underneath the words "For any complains, please call," which I might not have done if I had realized the owners were coming later to help and observe. The best comment comes from former Warner-ite and "Faces of Schlock" actor Chris Rhodes, who wrote "Find a new place to take a shit and pass out while you wait on the bus."

A lot of people were coming in to take pictures, including Jacob Young, the director of "The Dancing Outlaw." We had been playing the new Jesco White documentary "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" for about two months and I had always wanted to do an event with Jacob's films, but that unfortunately never happened.

The end of the night was pretty rough. We had a lot of people turn out for the last shows, but I also had to deal with our "extra help" which actually made dealing with the crowd even worse. Imagine filling two concession orders at once and having someone hand you money for a drink order they just filled and ask why you haven't helped anyone else. I felt like leaving right then, but I'm either that dedicated or that stupid.

After everything was settled, I ducked into "Dinner for Schmucks," which was officially the last movie that ran at the Warner Theatre (beating all other titles by about 10 minutes). I ended up getting emotional and had to hide in the projection room. After a few minutes, I turned up the projection room monitors and watched the movie to try to cheer me up. Upon deciding it was godawful, I was feeling good enough to go back down, but as more and more people asked me what was going to happen with the building and so-on-and-so-forth, I finally just started being very blunt, bitter and honest with people.

I finally left a few minutes after the extended help had to ask me what to do with a pile of trash after they had swept it up. There were two empty dust bins about three feet away. I'll let you figure out what the correct answer is on your own.

It took me a few days to really get all the sadness out, but it didn't help that the day after the theater closed, I took a terrible job selling cell phone covers at a kiosk in the mall. I ended up working one 11 hour shift (which they required) and spent the last four hours not selling any phone covers, being constantly hassled about said lack of sales and fighting tears when I thought about how good I really had it at the Warner. So yeah, that wasn't for me and I didn't go back... they didn't even take my Social Security information, so I'm not expecting to be paid. But also, keep that in mind if you're thinking about taking one of these insanely shady jobs.

What helped cheer me up was my birthday celebration. I usually don't do much, but I decided that I really deserved it. I had multiple celebrations with friends and family, but the best came when I found out "Basket Case" director Frank Henenlotter would be at the Horror Realm convention in Pittsburgh, PA a few days after my birthday. I had kept in touch with Frank since booking "Basket Case" for a midnight show at the Warner a few years ago, which is one of my favorite films and an event I was really proud of (despite a lackluster turn-out... but the people who did come had a great time).

Getting to meet Frank definitely helped bring closure to the whole ordeal, when he explained to me that working in a movie theater is a "magical experience" and that I should be glad that I even had the opportunity to do so. There's nothing quite like having a director you admire make you realize the most positive outcome of your situation in person.

Since then, I've been serving banquets and such in the kitchen at the Hilton Garden Inn. It's not the greatest job, but it's decent money and less stressful. I just got another job as a bank teller, so hopefully having some financial support will help my film endeavors a bit more.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Buddy Giovinazzo's "No Way Home"

I know it's going to seem odd saying this right after my previous post about VHS, but it's really unbelievable how many films never managed to see a DVD release.

I can think of plenty of reasons why a film would not make it on to a digital format (music licensing, questionable rights ownership, etc.), there are also a handful of films that were released on VHS during the early days of DVD that have never made it to DVD, and probably never will due to the rise of BluRay and instant streaming services.

One example of a film which has never seen the light of a five-inch platter in the US is "Combat Shock" director Buddy Giovinazzo's film "No Way Home." Artisan Entertainment released the film on VHS in 1997, but never managed to release the film on DVD.
The godawful VHS artwork for Artisan Entertainment's release of "No Way Home.
Even more insulting to this fact is that the VHS edition of "No Way Home" that I own opens the film with an advertisement for Live Entertainment's first wave of DVD releases.  (I was hoping someone had posted this fantastically '90s looking promo clip on YouTube, but I couldn't find it.)
According to an interview I conducted with Giovinazzo in September 2009 for my college newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, "No Way Home" was produced under the Live Entertainment studio and right as the film was being completed, they were bought out by Artisan.  Here's an excerpt from that interview that didn't make it into the article (which was appropriate, since it was focusing on his film "Life is Hot in Cracktown"):

"'No Way Home' was made by a company called Live Entertainment and during the post-production, Live was sold to another company called Artisan.  The people at Artisan didn't want to make the film, but they had to finish it because they had so much money put into it, but they didn't want to release it.  So there's nobody at these companies that really likes the film, so I don't know if it will ever come out." - Buddy Giovinazzo, Sept. 14th, 2009
Buddy Giovinazzo's brief cameo in "No Way Home."
Though the film was a big hit in Germany, it didn't make a very big splash in the US and has since vanished into obscurity.  In fact, as Giovinazzo notes, not a soul at Artisan wanted to make the film and the VHS release was probably only created to fulfill contract obligations.  Artisan was bought out by Lionsgate a few years ago, which probably makes things even worse for the fate of this film.  However, it's success overseas allowed Buddy to find work directing television productions in Germany, where he currently resides.

Giovinazzo: "I couldn't get any work in America, so I thought I would just come here and live for a little bit... and then 'No Way Home' was really successful here and people really liked [it].  Then it just happened where I got these offers [for German television directing work]... and I was happy here.  I love the city... it's a beautiful city, so I felt really at home here.  It was just luck. 'No Way Home' in America did nothing.  It was not a successful film financially and because of that I couldn't get work for a real long time."

So, pretty much, the film is in a permanent state of limbo because there's probably not a soul at Lionsgate who really even knows the film exists.  I've rarely even seen much mention of it when referring to Giovinazzo's other films - which is a shame, because it truly is a fantastic film that echoes the same tone as "Combat Shock" in a well-plotted and paced family drama.

After being released from a six year prison sentence for attempted robbery, Joey (Tim Roth) asks his brother Tommy (James Russo) for a place to stay until he can manage to get back on his feet.  Tommy is living in their childhood home with his beautiful wife, Lorraine (Deborah Kara Unger).

When Joey first arrives, Lorraine is clearly bothered, but she soon forms a friendship as she learns that he is genuinely a good person who wants to obey his parole rules.  Unfortunately, Tommy is also selling marijuana out of their house, which would put Joey back in jail if his parole officer should ever check in on him.

Despite being urged to quit dealing drugs for Joey's sake, Tommy doesn't stop.  As it turns out, he's been lying to Lorraine about his financial situation.  He's deep in debt with his marijuana supplier and their home is near foreclosure.  As the heat builds on Tommy, he is quick to find the easy way out, but as a result sets off a chain reaction of violence and the resurrection of family secrets.

"No Way Home" was Giovinazzo's second film and has a much more polished feel and look than his other films.  While "Combat Shock" and "Life is Hot in Cracktown" are fantastic films, they also contain some intense content that will probably turn off some audiences.  On the other hand, "No Way Home" is as accessible as any mainstream film, but is still shows a strong resemblance to the rest of Giovinazzo's catalog.

In fact, there's even a scene that in "No Way Home" where Russo sneaks to grab a gun while a group of thugs search through his wife's jewelry.  It feels incredibly similar to the scene in "Combat Shock" where Frankie pulls a revolver on Paco and his gang while they search through the purse he had just nabbed.

But what really makes "No Way Home" such a good film is the script, which is very finely crafted.  Several story elements are left vague for the majority of the film, but when they are finally revealed, it is done seamlessly with the plot.

It's just a great drama with a well-plotted script with fantastic performances, and that's why it's so unfortunate that it's been banished to the analog oblivion in here in Region 1.  However, if you have a region-free player, there is an out-of-print Region 2 DVD from the UK that can be purchased used and also a German DVD that is also Region 2.

Or you can just suck it up and pick up the VHS release.  It's watchable, but a film as good as "No Way Home" really deserves a good home on DVD.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The (Extended) Death of VHS: An overly sentimental tribute to mom-and-pop video stores

It might come as a surprise to everyone that even though I'm a rabid film fan, I don't own a high-definition television or a BluRay player.  Even more shocking is that I probably own about the same amount of DVDs as I do VHS tapes and I still buy VHS quite often.

It's not that I have a problem with watching movies in HD or that I'm some kind of weird VHS purist, I'm just poor and prefer my movies in quantity not quality.  When DVD was putting the final nails into VHS's coffin, I was still buying videos more than I was buying DVDs.  I was buying DVDs, too, but it's hard to pass up a movie you want to see for $2 or less.  I remember being exposed to some of my favorite indie films (including "Stevie" and "Happiness") by picking them up on a whim when the local Video Warehouse (R.I.P.) were liquidating their VHS.

I also became very happy when I moved to Morgantown for college and discovered Vintage Video and Games had an awesome deal for VHS trades: they would trade a tape-for-a-tape.  Meaning, you could bring a VHS movie in and trade it for a different movie.  It was almost like renting, but you wouldn't get penalized for keeping the tape.

My VHS buying-and-trading at Vintage really hit it's peak when a friend of mine was throwing out an entire box of VHS tapes and his VCR by putting them on his porch in a box with "free" written on it.  He told me that if no one had taken them by trash day, they were all going in the garbage.  In fact, he prefaced the decision with the blunt statement, "VHS is garbage."  I actually felt somewhat offended by that sentiment.

I couldn't let him do it, though.  Like a manic PETA enthusiast at the dog pound, I scooped up the whole box and kept a select few titles for myself, then took the rest to Vintage for a trade-in.  From that one box of tapes, I was able to snag countless out-of-print movies, including Mark Romanek's "Static," John Waters' "Multiple Maniacs," and I even found the exact rental copy of John G. Avildsen's "Joe" that I used to rent from Grand Slam Video in high school.  Hell, I even still have a pretty decent sized box of unwatched tapes that have accumulated.  While I would also buy a few movies and then started to trade other stuff I had bought and didn't want anymore, the Vintage Video and Games VHS trade system was the best thing that happened to cheap VHS since the liquidation of rental stores.

The copy of "Joe" that I used to rent from Grand Slam Video.  Take note that the spine label is for a totally different video store.  That's because Grand Slam most likely bought their stock from video stores that had closed down after the death of the home video boom in the 1980s.
But, I'm pretty sure the real official end of VHS might finally be coming.  In other words, I'm finally starting to come to terms with the fact that it's been dead for years.
Vintage has finally decided to get rid of their VHS stock, now offering five tapes for $1.  It's a great deal, but it also means that my days of ludicrously inexpensive lo-fi video entertainment has finally come to an end.  As I made a splurge to pick up five movies, I realized this may be the last time I get to buy a huge stack of VHS tapes from a mom-and-pop video store and I started to get even more sentimental about the video format.
Maybe it's time to change the vanity phone number as well.
Unfortunately, the title selection was pretty slim, but I did get to grab a copy of "The Squeeze" starring Michael Keaton.  I never saw the movie and don't have much of a desire to, but it brought back memories of the shock laughter my friends and I shared after finding it on the rental shelf shortly after 9/11.

Something tells me that they'll be designing a new cover if this ever comes out on DVD and BluRay.

Considering the fact that we're now two home video formats past VHS (three if you count video-on-demand), I guess it's way past time for me to start declaring the death of the format.  But watching movies on VHS was an important part of my development as a film fan and while I now have a ton of movies I could watch instantly on Netflix, it's never going to match the charm of grabbing a stack of VHS tapes for a couple of dollars from a mom-and-pop video store.

Back when I was renting from Grand Slam Video in high school, they had a deal on old VHS releases: three movies for $2 or seven movies for $5.  Single old releases were only 69 cents, so the real savings were actually marginal. The store was full of the back catalogs of video stores that had closed after the '80s home video boom, so it was common to rent a movie and find the tape covered in stickers of a completely different video store (some were local, some were from other states).  Even weirder was that the store really didn't have much organization.

Walls were covered with tapes that were haphazardly organized by genre, but it was really pretty much "Horror" in one spot and "Everything Else" scattered on the remaining shelves.  But the lack of organization made for interesting movie choices, as I'd usually find myself just grabbing something at random just to get the right amount of rentals for the discount.  I really attribute a lot of my eclectic taste to renting videos at Grand Slam, because I was renting classics alongside horror movies, schlocky b-movies and mainstream movies.  A typical triple feature from Grand Slam could be something like this: "Class of Nuke 'Em High," "Network," and "Forbidden Zone."

Of course, they didn't care too much about quality.  I can remember not watching a copy of "Better Off Dead" I rented there because the back of the VHS appeared to be held together by part of an old adhesive bandage.  I kid you not.  But when you're paying less than 75 cents for a movie rental, it was hard to complain.

Several years ago, they liquidated their entire VHS stock and now only rent DVDs.  I haven't been back since, so I have no clue whether they've embraced BluRay or not.  It's amazing they're even still around, but hopefully they can keep fighting the good fight, since they are literally the last indie video rental store in my hometown.

Regardless, I'm saddened that my retail experience with VHS movies has officially come to an end.  It's up to yard sales, flea markets, and thrift stores to fill the void now.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Look out Internet, here comes another blog.

That's right everybody.  I've resisted for quite some time, but I'm finally getting the itch to start writing about movies again.  It's been a few months since I was forced to resign from my position as film critic at the WVU student newspaper The Daily Athenaeum and on to the illustrious job market with my Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism (with a focus in Visual Communications and New Media).

Three months into my college life, I'm still working for minimum wage at a movie theater, writing mundane freelance articles, and struggling to find financing for my own film projects (including my webseries, 2 Dudes and a Sweet Prince).

So in my free time, I'm going to start posting reviews of random movies I happen to enjoy (mostly obscure or underrated films) and also reviews of movies I have recently discovered (again, probably mostly obscure or underrated films).

We were just recently able to raise funds for a consumer-level HD camera (the Canon HF M300) for the next season of "2 Dudes," so I hope to post a couple blogs about what it's like working with consumer-level cameras for production.  I made my first film, Raising the Stakes, with a $500 Canon MiniDV camera and I'm curious to see how much further that money goes in terms of quality nowadays.

I'm probably also going to start randomly posting things I've noticed about recent movies or funny happenings at my job at The Warner Theatre in Morgantown, WV.  You probably know us as "five-dollar theater" or "the theater that serves beer."  (We don't actually serve beer, though.  That's a vicious rumor.)

So keep your eyes peeled to this site in the next couple weeks and I'll hopefully keep you entertained with this thing.  Look out Internet, here comes another film blog.