May 31, 2015

Rest in Peace, Betsy Palmer


Betsy Palmer (1926-2015)

May 30, 2015

DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) and the Crumbling Cookie

Starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Ty Burrell, Kevin Zegers, Mekhi Phifer. Directed by Zack Snyder. (2004, 100 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON
 
Who doesn't love Oreos?

That's a rhetorical question, by the way. Everyone loves Oreos.

There's a damn good reason these delectable delights are the best selling cookies in the world...they're the perfect marriage of wafer and creme. Not only that, Oreos are the all-purpose cookie...great with ice cream or turned into pie crusts. And who on Earth hasn’t simply tossed a few into a glass of milk in the middle of the night, turning them into divine ambrosia before spooning this orgasmic mush into our mouths? If Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were snack foods, the offspring of their consummation would be a milk-soaked Oreo. Sorry, but you just can’t do that with Fig Newtons.

As a kid, whenever Mom returned from grocery shopping with a fresh package of Oreos, my sister and I felt truly loved. It also made me feel sorry for my friends whose parents demonstrated utter hatred for their own kids by bringing home Hydrox instead.

Hydrox were widely regarded as a cheap knock-off of Oreos. Parents cruel enough to pack them in their kids’ lunches were usually reported to Child Protective Services for suspected abuse. There were actually occasions when my own Mom brought home Hydrox instead the usual Oreos. Whenever I inquired why, she'd quip, "I'm not your real mother."
Yeech...

I guess that was easier than just admitting cash was tight that week. But what parents failed to realize was, in elementary school, the contents of your Scooby-Doo lunchbox said a lot about your socio-economic status. Classmates packing such precious processed products by Hostess, Frito-Lay and Nabisco were the envy of the cafeteria; those stuck with Dolly Madison, Granny Goose and Sunshine cookies were the lowly brown-baggers. On the plus side, however, no one ever stole their lunches.

But that's beside the point, since honestly, I never had any true aversion to Hydrox cookies. They were tasty enough, just not as awesome as Oreos. How could they be? Oreos were the original sandwich cookie...

...or so I thought.

It wasn’t until just recently that I learned Hydrox’s creme-filled sandwich cookies have actually been around since 1908, a full four years before Oreos hit the shelves. In fact, it was Hydrox that initially inspired the National Biscuit Company (a.k.a. Nabisco) to create their own version. All this time, Oreos were the actual knock-offs.

But first doesn't always mean best. Sunshine may have come up with the idea, but Nabisco turned it into something perfectly irresistible, which is why Oreos still fly off the shelves and Hydrox exist only in the memories of those with tortured childhoods. On a side note...isn't Hydrox a terrible name for a cookie in the first place? It sounds like an acne medicine.

Similarly, few will argue that the great George A. Romero is the godfather of the modern zombie as we've come to know it. 1968's Night of the Living Dead was a taboo-smasher and the first to depict the undead as mindless, perpetually hungry hordes. In ensuing years it was oft-imitated but never duplicated, at least until Romero himself unleashed Dawn of the Dead ten years later. Not-only did Dawn up the ante in the gore department, the film had a lot to say about American consumer culture at the time. It is widely considered the greatest zombie film of all time, the standard by which nearly every other subsequent film in the genre has been measured.

And for the longest time, I concurred. I first saw Dawn of the Dead with a couple of friends when I was 15 and, aside from the fact it made one of them puke (you can read about that HERE), it redefined horror for me. Not only was it funny, suspenseful and loaded with social commentary relevant for its time, Dawn became the movie I dared friends to endure when it was released on home video. For years, Dawn was as untouchable as The Exorcist and Psycho...a film which could never be improved upon. Though not for a lack of trying, since Dawn was liberally ripped-off over the years, mostly by Italian hacks like Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei, who assumed the film’s only appeal was the extreme gore.

Though the popularity of zombies has fluctuated over the years, few would argue that their impact on 21st Century popular culture has been a phenomenon, with video games, horror movies, TV shows, parades and books all dedicated to presenting the undead as Romero first envisioned them back in 1968. Considering the ongoing Hollywood trend of remaking classic horror films, revisiting Dawn of the Dead was inevitable.

Black Friday at Walmart.
The announcement was met with resistance, of course, mostly by those (including yours truly) who considered the original an untouchable classic. When you throw in an unknown director at the time and backing from a major studio (who typically shy-away from hard-core visceral gore), how could a remake of Dawn of the Dead be anything but a shallow shell of a movie, watered down to appeal to the mallrat crowd (especially since the screenwriter, James Gunn, was best-known at the time for writing Scooby-Doo)?

So imagine everyone’s shock when this new Dawn of the Dead turned out to be not-so-much a remake, but a creative and rousing re-imagining of the original material, a legitimate zombie film in its own right. Gunn and director Zack Snyder took the premise (survivors trapped in the seemingly idyllic existence of a shopping mall) and jettisoned everything else that endeared legions of fans to Romero’s film. Other than a few respectful nods to the original (mostly Easter eggs and cameos), the new Dawn had a personality as unique as John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.

Though it pains me to do so, it’s at this point that I must commit an act of heresy by admitting I think the new Dawn of the Dead is better than the original, the cinematic equivalent to Oreos vs. Hydrox.

I’m well-aware of Romero’s legacy and his use of the undead to address society’s ills. The man has all of my adoration and respect as one of horror cinema’s most influential founding fathers. But having seen all of his zombie films multiple times, the ugly fact remains that Romero’s noble ideals tend to overshadow his actual abilities as a filmmaker. He has a shitload of audacity, a welcome trait that makes his movies true treasures (especially 1985’s Day of the Dead, his best-crafted film). But the fact remains that, unlike contemporaries such as John Carpenter or David Cronenberg, Romero has no distinctive directorial style of his own other than his willingness to push the envelope.

Looking at both films as objectively as possible, the original Dawn of the Dead does some amazing things with a limited budget, but is also hampered by it: Tom Savini’s make-up effects are suitably extreme, ranging from gorge-stirringly gory to ridiculously daffy (blue-skinned zombies and garishly bright blood). The same can be said for the performances, which range from serviceable to downright amateurish. We may like these characters, but the actors are only a notch above what you’d find in a community theater production. The editing is often clumsy, which also applies to its semi-legendary soundtrack, an uneasy combination of Goblin’s influential & hypnotic rock score (at co-producer Dario Argento’s insistence) and Romero’s preferred public domain library tracks. While old school purists will likely consider these elements part of the original film’s overall charm (and they wouldn‘t necessarily be wrong), these same elements also render it a low budget product of its time. And it has aged badly. By comparison, Romero’s once-maligned sequel, Day of the Dead, belies its grassroots production values every step of the way, resulting in a film which actually holds up better, despite being 30 years old.

The 2004 remake starts off brilliantly, its first 15 minutes setting-up the story with a stunning opening attack and montage (creatively incorporating Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”) which not-only sets the tone, but defiantly lets the audience know this ain’t your daddy’s Dawn of the Dead. Gone are the allegories of 70’s consumerism, and while such other satirical opportunities are largely absent, its simple theme of survival at all costs carries additional apocalyptic weight. Its characters are far more eclectic and believable, ranging from common housewives and salesmen to disillusioned police officers and douchebag yuppies. Likely due to the increased budget, this version of Dawn features a cast who display more range than those in the original. Also unlike the original, which has too many dull stretches to justify its length, the remake trims the fat considerably...it's leaner, meaner and (dare I say it?) ultimately scarier.

Then there’s the violence, which, if we’re to be honest, is a big reason for any zombie movie’s appeal (how else can you explain the nostalgic popularity of Lucio Fulci’s sleazy shitfests?). Even though this version of Dawn of the Dead was released by Universal, the film is bloody as hell, going as far to depict an infected woman giving birth to a zombie baby, followed by the violent death of both. This is arguably the most brutally-Romeroesque gag that George himself never thought of. And even if you're not a fan of this version, you have to admit the scene involving a rifleman picking-off celebrity lookalikes is inspired.

These revelations were hard for me to accept. I’ve always been one who believed the greatest movies should never be remade, since there was no way to improve on perfection. For the longest time, I believed the original Dawn of the Dead to be one of those films. But if I’m to be honest with myself, after multiple viewings of both, I’m increasingly inclined to concede Romero’s Dawn is far from perfect and the remake is more entertaining. And let’s face it, even though he’s gone on to bigger things, this arguably remains director Zack Snyder’s smartest, most cohesive film.

So from my perspective, George A. Romero might be considered the founder of Sunshine, creator of Hydrox cookies, only to be ripped-off by the likes of Zack Snyder and James Gunn, turning an already great product into something even better. As much as I hate to admit, Romero’s film is now the cinematic Hydrox.

May 28, 2015

FKMG's DISASTER MOVIE ROUND-UP

We here at FKMG have always had a soft spot in our fuzzy hearts for disaster movies. Needless to say, we're already purring in anticipation of San Andreas, starting 5/28. Me & the wife (Mrs. Whiskers) will be first in line, kibbles and catnip in-hand, to enjoy all the destructive glory. Hell, we don't even care if it's any good, so long I get to see California wasted and Mrs. Whiskers can gaze at the wonder of Dwayne Johnson's biceps for two hours. Needless to say, disaster epics from all eras have been part of our healthy diet since we sprang from the litter. So, in honor of San Andreas keeping the genre alive, here's a look back at some of FKMG'S disaster movie essays (click the links to view):


May 25, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: 1776 - DIRECTOR'S CUT

Starring William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, John Cullum, David Ford, Blythe Danner, Virginia Vestoff, Roy Poole. Directed by Peter H. Hunt. (1972, 166 min).
Sony

This musical is probably most remembered as the last hurrah for longtime mogul Jack L. Warner, who purchased the film rights during its successful Broadway run. Unfortunately, 1776 was arguably released ten years too late, when the "new" Hollywood was cranking out such convention-defying fare as The Godfather and Deliverance. Even the few other musicals made during this time, such as Cabaret, were darker & edgier than those of a bygone era. Unsurprisingly, 1776 tanked at the box office.

I seem to vaguely recall seeing parts of it five or six years later, when films were often re-released and I was a teenager who enjoyed theater-hopping at the Southgate Quad Cinema, located within biking distance. As a preteen whose taste in movies leaned more towards Jaws and Star Wars, I was largely unimpressed with musicals, even more-so in this case, since 1776 didn't appear to really be about anything.

The founding fathers...of One Direction.

Over the years, I developed an appreciation for musicals and the historical context of when they were made. As such, 1776 may not be held in as high regard as West Side Story or The Sound of Music, but despite its slight story (John Adams' attempts to get other members of congress to draft and sign the Declaration of Independence), it's pretty enjoyable. Revisiting the film today on Blu-Ray allows us to appreciate it on its own terms. Though the songs are mostly forgettable, the exuberance of the cast (especially William Daniels as John Adams & Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin) make this an entertaining - highly fictionalized - romp through early American history. Its excessive length leads to some definite lulls (ironically during some of the musical numbers), but for the most part, 1776 is, by turns, funny, sentimental, suspenseful and occasionally rousing.

Despite its old school approach to the musical genre, I have to say its depiction of congress as a batch of argumentative, bureaucratic & clueless buffoons may be more timely today than it was back in ‘72. Maybe there’s still some timely relevance to be found in this largely-forgotten film after all. Regardless, 1776 is well worth revisiting.

EXTRAS:

  • Extended Cut
  • Original DVD Commentary with Director Peter H. Hunt & Writer Peter Stone
  • New Commentary with Stone, William Daniels & Ken Howard
  • Deleted/Alternate Scenes
  • Original Screen Tests
KITTY CONSENSUS:
PURR...LIKE A GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS

Blu-Ray Giveaway: SWORD OF VENGEANCE

FREE KITTENS MOVIE GUIDE and WELL GO USA are giving away Blu-Ray copies of the brutal action film, Sword of Vengeance.

“Director Weedon … stages the nearly non-stop action with admirable stylishness ...”
~ Frank Scheck, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER

“… expertly choreographed action scenes that borrow liberally from samurai films … hits its mark of being a popcorn action flick just fine.” ~ Ernest Hardy, LA WEEKLY 

To enter, simply leave us a message in KITTY KONTACT, located in the sidebar at the top of this page. Winners will be chosen at random. 

May 24, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT

Starring Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie, Jesse Nagy, Nicholas Pinnock, Parker Swayers, Kyle Soller, Sofia Boutella. Directed by Tom Green. (2014, 119 min).
Anchor Bay

2010's Monsters was pretty impressive for a low budget film, enough for Hollywood to take notice and give director Gareth Edwards the Godzilla gig. But as well made as it was, Monsters wasn't without its detractors. For a film about giant alien beasties wreaking havoc across Mexico, we sure as hell didn't see much of them; the story itself was slow, somber and far more driven by its characters' journey home. If you weren't already onboard with what Edwards was able to accomplish with limited resources, you probably hated it. The inevitable sequel, Monsters: Dark Continent, is likely to be equally polarizing.

Edwards doesn't write or direct this one, but director Tom Green (no, not the Freddy Got Fingered guy) tries for the same vibe. This time, the aliens are running rampant in the Middle East, and we follow a group of newly-recruited young American soldiers as they join the fight to get rid of them. However, American intervention isn't exactly welcome by the indigenous population, mainly because widespread bombings are also destroying villages and killing civilians. This group of soldiers meets more resistance from the locals than the monsters themselves, which, despite their size and numbers, don't appear to be all that threatening or aggressive. In fact, one heard of bison-sized critters they encounter (and kill) might almost be considered cute.

When hemorrhoids go unchecked.

We do see a lot more of the title creatures this time around, and not just brief snippets of tentacles in the dark. As seen on the desert plains in broad daylight, they are colossal, menacing, even somewhat majestic. For a low budget film, the special effects are as impressive as any mega-budget blockbuster you'd care to name. However, they still take a backseat to the human conflicts. Speaking of which, despite earnest attempts to establish each individual character (mostly at the beginning, which includes some pointlessly gratuitous sex scenes), none of them are particularly interesting, so when they start dying or going batshit crazy, we don't really feel much.

At nearly two hours, the film is way too long, with a few stretches which are nearly sleep-inducing. Because of its lack of dynamic characters, the entire first act could have been excised without being missed. However, once we're in the battle zone (with a none-too-subtle commentary questioning our current military involvement in the Middle East), there's at least enough going on to keep us interested. We also begin to develop the unshakable feeling that the aliens themselves aren’t the real monsters, though an apocalyptic final shot suggest they will be the catalyst of our demise.

Like the original film, Monsters: Dark Continent may ultimately end up being more admired than truly enjoyed, depending on how much you appreciate what a filmmaker can accomplish with a limited budget. Whatever the case, you’ve probably sat through far worse sequels.

EXTRAS:

  • "On the Set with Monsters: Dark Continent" (very brief featurette)
  • Trailer

KITTY CONSENSUS:
NOT BAD...LIKE CAT CHOW

May 22, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: SWORD OF VENGEANCE

Starring Stanley Weber, Annabelle Wallice, Ed Skrein, Dave Legeno, Karel Roden. Directed by Jim Weedon. (2015, 87 min).
Well Go USA

Watching Sword of Vengeance is like attending a vegan dinner party where they serve meatless lasagna. Sure, it looks like lasagna, smells like lasagna, and may even superficially taste like lasagna. But deep down in your heart, despite what your hipster hosts claim as they shovel forkfuls of the stuff and pretend to enjoy it, you know this ain't lasagna. It's noodles & sauce, as satisfying as a can of Spaghetti-Os.

It takes a lot of things to make a good lasagna, just like it takes a lot of things to make a good blood & guts historical epic. Sword of Vengeance looks good, complete with the prerequisite washed-out, grimy-gray hues, flaming arrows, clashing swords and spurting arteries. But unfortunately, it's lacking the meat & cheese that make it worth sampling, namely a good story and interesting characters.

In fact, the entire plot is laid out in an opening title card: a former prince (Stanley Weber) returns to his kingdom to get revenge on his uncle, who killed his father. The rest of the film simply plays it out. We never learn prince's name, but the end credits refer to him as the Shadow Walker (?). Weber scowls his way through the role, looking perpetually brooding, but we literally learn nothing else about him or any other character, including a female warrior he saves from being raped and the group of farmers he reluctantly fights alongside. The primary antagonist, Earl Durant, is perfunctory (aside from a few token murders, we only know he's the head bad guy because we're told he is). Some live and some die, but since video game characters have more personality than these folks, it's hard to care.

Constipation's a bitch.

It's obvious most of the attention is paid to the numerous battle scenes, which are competent and suitably bloody. Even then, the overuse of slow motion becomes monumentally annoying after awhile; one gets the impression that if everything was shot in real time, the entire film would be 20 minutes long. Director Jim Weedon displays some technical skill, but maybe he should lay-off the John Woo films for awhile and learn that vegan lasagna, no matter how you gussy it up, still has no real substance.

Ultimately, despite all the mayhem, Sword of Vengeance is an action movie that commits the cardinal sin of boring the pants off of you. Undemanding viewers (or those who enjoy watching other people play video games) may appreciate the battle scenes, but the rest of us would like some meat & cheese in our meal.

EXTRAS: (NOTE: Bonus features were not accessible on this disc)

  • Behind the Scenes Featurette
  • Interviews with Producers and Director Jim Weedon
  • Trailer
KITTY CONSENSUS:
MEH...

May 21, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: McFARLAND, USA

Starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez. Directed by Niki Caro. (2015, 129 min).
Disney

Kevin Costner and sports go together like cops & donuts. Throughout his long, erratic career, he's always been more earnest  in his sports-related films. It's his niche, the one genre where he always seems to bring his A-game, even if not all of them are classics on the level of Field of Dreams or Bull Durham. Like Liam Neeson's latter-day career as a kick-ass action hero, I don't think anyone would complain if Costner spent the rest of his life doing what he does best.

Similarly, it can be argued that nobody is currently cranking out inspirational sports movies as consistently as Disney. Just look at their track recorded over the past several years...Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans, The Rookie, Miracle, Secretariat, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Invincible, Million Dollar Arm, etc. You gotta admit Disney has the whole based-on-a-true-story thing down pat...reliable, entertaining films which follow the same basic formula and feature likable characters we can identify with. They may not all be classics, but certainly affable enough to entertain all but the most heartless cynics in the audience.

I'm actually surprised it took this long for Costner and Disney to finally hook up. The result of this inevitable pairing, McFarland, USA, doesn't reach the emotional heights of Miracle or Invincible, but comes pretty damned close.

"Squirrel!"
It's 1987. Costner plays Jim White, a football coach who loses his job after an altercation with a smart-ass student and eventually gets hired by the only high school that would take him, located in McFarland, a tiny, predominantly-Hispanic agricultural town. Most of the teenagers living here are destined to join their parents working in the fields picking produce for a living. Though being an assistant football coach doesn't pan-out, White gets to know some of these kids and discovers many of them are actually gifted runners, which gives him the idea to form a cross-country team.

If you've seen even a few of Disney's sports-related films, you can predict what happens next, since McFarland, USA contains nearly every trope which made their previous movies successful:
  • A troubled main character no one believes in 
  • A raggedy band of misfits no one believes in
  • The team is initially humiliated by blatantly hateful coaches & competitors
  • A level of unity, respect and trust between White and his athletes
  • Heartwarming scenes of White bonding with his team
  • Heartwarming scenes of White and his supportive family 
  • The entire team slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with, earning the respect of both the community and their opponents 
  • That climactic championship moment where everyone's resolve is tested 
  • Since this is a true story, the obligatory where-are-they-now montage just before the end credits roll
Yeah, it's a virtual checklist, but would you really want it any other way? Sure, inspirational sports movies are a dime-a-dozen, but this type of story never gets old, and nobody currently does it better than Disney. A rock-solid performance by Costner is simply icing on the cake; he hasn't been this laid-back, affable and charming in years. As for his co-stars...Maria Bello (as White's wife) has a thankless role, but the kids who make up his team are all distinctive and interesting, especially Carlos Pratts as Thomas, torn between his family's expectations and the desire to strive for something greater.

Ultimately, it takes a real cynic not to like this movie. There aren't any surprises, but it's skillfully made and pushes all the right emotional buttons the way the best sports films do. Besides, isn't it kinda fun to allow yourself to be shamelessly manipulated like this from time to time? McFarland, USA may not be Disney's greatest sports film (Invincible hold that distinction, in this author's humble opinion), but it's one of their better ones.

EXTRAS:

  • FEATURETTES: "McFarland Reflections" (Costner talks with the real-life Jim White and cross-country team); "Inspiring McFarland" (brief promotional video)
  • Music Video: "Juntos" by Juanes
  • Deleted and Extended Scenes
  • Digital HD Copy
KITTY CONSENSUS:
PURR...LIKE THAT (FAMILIAR) GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS

May 18, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, SEASON TWO

Starring Taylor Schilling, Michael J. Harney, Kate Mulgrew, Laura Prepon, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning. Various Directors. (2014, 774 min).

Review by Michelle MaBelle

Orange is the New Black is good. Really, really good, but you already knew that. 

You've probably also already heard everyone losing their minds over Season One, screaming about how it deserved to win all the Emmys and such. Maybe you even got tired of hearing that. Maybe you rolled your eyes and told people to shut up because it was just a show, so who cares? That's the exact boat I was in before I actually sat down and watched the first season and spent the entire day in front of my TV, losing my mind and screaming about how, yeah, it deserved to win everything.

Season Two is just as good. Maybe even better, actually.

Season One focused on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she fumbled around in Litchfield trying to cope with prison life. Season Two shows Piper as being a bit more aggressive and a lot more selfish. This season, however, takes Piper out of the spotlight more often and lets the supporting cast shine more brightly. This is a blessing, really, because my biggest complaint about Season One was Piper's constant back and forth with Alex and Larry, which was interesting for about three minutes, then became repetitive and dull.

Orange is the New Black is one of those shows where the main characters are fine, but it's those in the background that really make it something special. Blending Piper in with everyone else, making her just one part of the community instead of it's center, really pushes Season Two to new heights. Learning who the other girls were before prison is quite often heart-wrenching. The stories of Taystee, Mendoza and Poussey stand out in particular and really hammer home the idea that not everyone who does a bad thing is a necessarily bad person at their core.

"Please, God...strike thee down anyone hotter than me...especially that 'Hot Donna' bitch..."

Actually, that's the overall theme that Season Two takes and runs with. Good people do bad things and bad people have some good in them. The world isn't black and white, and everyone in Litchfield is grey. It's a ideal that could have come dangerously close to becoming overused and cheesy, but it works here. Every. Single. Time. I was on the edge of my seat every episode, face practically against the screen as I wondered who would be in the spotlight next. I wanted to know who these girls were before, and at the end of the episode I was never disappointed, although I was often a blubbering mess.

I don't want to spoil things, but I will say this: My only complaint about this season is they spend a ridiculous amount of time on Larry. Nobody cares about Larry. He was uninteresting in Season One, and now he's uninteresting and unnecessary. He and Piper aren't together anymore, so we don't need to spend as much time with him.

Despite that, Season Two is still a wonderful addition to Season One. Its final episode is satisfying, but still leaves enough plot threads unfinished to make Season Three very, very interesting.

EXTRAS:
  • FEATURETTES: "A Walk Around the Block"; "Orange Peeled"; "Back Before the Potato Sack"; "The Vee.I.P. Treatment"
  • Audio Commentaries

KITTY CONSENSUS:
MEE-OW! LIKE A FRESH CAN O' TUNA!


May 16, 2015

Book Review: VHS VIDEO COVER ART

By Thomas "The Dude Designs" Hodges. (2015, 264 pp).
Schiffer Publishing

Man, talk about a blast from the past...

In the days before DVD, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon (hell, even before Blockbuster), people would venture to the local mom & pop video store to check-out what was on the shelves. These were also the days before iMDB and Rotten Tomatoes could educate us about a particular film, so sharing shelf space with the usual blockbusters was a plethora of low budget, straight-to-video crap that respected critics didn’t even bother reviewing. These films relied on histrionic plot descriptions and wild covers to dupe us into checking them out.

This book isn’t about the films themselves, but the wonderful (often lurid) artwork that convinced us the latest Mad Max rip-off would be awesome. VHS Video Cover Art pays loving homage to the gifted artists who made some of these shitfests too enticing to pass up.

VHS Video Cover Art is a gorgeous coffee table book with little actual text outside of the introductions. Nor is any really needed. The pictures & film summaries speak for themselves. Some are hilariously cheesy, while others approach a level of artistry the films themselves don’t even come close to reaching. The book’s individual chapters focus on specific genres most ripe for exploitation. My personal favorite chapter is dedicated to cheap kid-friendly films, mainly because the covers are the most blatantly pandering.

My personal favorite example from the book. Check out the summary on the back of the box.

It should be noted that much of the VHS artwork offered here is from the European releases of these films, which sometimes differs greatly from what Americans spotted on the shelves back in the 80s. This isn’t really a strike against the book, since some of that artwork is truly amazing, but it might lessen its nostalgic value for some audiences hoping to see the same box art for Evil Dead II which first encouraged them to check it out in the first place.

At any rate, VHS Video Cover Art is an amusing and nostalgic blast from the past. It passes no judgment on the movies we were duped into seeing back in the 80s and early 90s, but definitely makes us appreciate the artistic efforts made to boost their gotta-see level. This is a wonderfully entertaining piece of media history.

KITTY CONSENSUS:
PURR...LIKE A GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS

May 15, 2015

VARÈSE SARABANDE ANNOUNCES NEW SUBSCRIPTION SERIES

The LP to CD Series Will Launch With Charles Bernstein’s APRIL FOOL’S DAY
(May 15, 2014– Los Angeles, CA) – Today Varèse Sarabande launches their first ever CD subscription series. Entitled LP to CD, the series will feature soundtrack albums culled from Varèse Sarabande’s vinyl vault that have never been released on CD to date and only available to subscribers.  The first title in the series will be Charles Bernstein’s APRIL FOOL’S DAY, a long out of print and in-demand soundtrack album from the iconic and prolific film composer.  The LP to CD subscription series consists of 12 previous unreleased soundtracks from Varèse Sarabande’s archives, with subsequent titles to be announced each month.  Membership to the LP to CD series costs $10 per month, (plus shipping).
 
Each album in the LP to CD series is chosen for its quality and archival value.  The individual CDs are authentically packaged in mini-LP replica jackets.  Subscribers who pre-order for the year membership, (billed monthly), will receive a limited edition retro-styled mini vinyl record carrying case with their APRIL FOOL’S DAY shipment to be filled with each successive album during the 12 month subscription run.  The pre-order period runs from May 15 – June 14, 2015. After June 14, fans can join the subscription series on a month-to-month basis.
 
“Varèse Sarabande has a rich catalog of soundtracks which have never been released on CD,” said Darren Blumenthal, CEO.  “As we have delved deeper into our vaults, we have located many fan favorites that had previously only been released on vinyl.  We believe this subscription series will fulfill the requests of longstanding fans who commit to the series while also introducing a new generation of fans to some of these previously hard-to-find gems.” 
 
Visit http://bit.ly/LP2CDSeries for full details about the LP to CD series.

May 14, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: PETER BENCHLEY'S CREATURE

Starring Craig T. Nelson, Kim Cattrall, Colm Feore, Cress Williams, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Reilly Burke, Blu Mankuma, Matthew Carey, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Michael Michele. Directed by Stuart Gillard. (1998, 176 min).

Peter Benchley will always be synonymous with Jaws, of course.

For a long time afterwards, he wrote a variety of other books no one cared about. It wasn't until fairly late in his career that he must have realized he'd never escape the shadow of Jaws. His last two novels, Beast and White Shark, had him revisiting what made him a household name in the first place...sea critters with nasty dispositions. While Beast follows the Jaws formula pretty closely, White Shark ventures into sci-fi territory, involving the military playing around with genetics to create monsters

Once again, Hollywood came calling and both were adapted into television miniseries. White Shark was retitled Creature, which is actually more accurate since the title beast isn't exactly a shark.

A few decades ago, the government tried crossbreeding sharks with other species, including humans, one of which escaped. 25 years later, marine biologist Simon Chase (Craig T. Nelson) is studying sharks near the now-abandoned research facility. He's later joined by ex-wife Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and teenage son Max. Soon, local islanders begin dying. At first everyone blames a pregnant great white lurking around, and inexplicably hold Chase responsible for not telling them about it (A shark in the ocean? This must be YOUR fault!).

But for Chase, the evidence doesn't add up to a shark being the culprit. After a few more locals become lunch, he and Amanda learn about the experiments once conducted at his lab. They contact the Navy, and Admiral Richland (Colm Feore), who was present when the creature first escaped, shows up with a batch of Navy Seals. He intends to kill the creature and destroy all evidence of the old experiments. Meanwhile, the creature begins attacking people on land. Because it's half-shark, half-humanoid, its got arms & legs to go with all those fins and teeth. 

"See? I TOLD you not to put-off cleaning the pool!"

At three hours, Creature is way too long for its own good; the same story could have been more economically told in half the time. Speaking of story...since you've read this far, you are obviously open to the outrageous premise. Things get goofy at times, both aided and hampered by the creature's appearance. Created by the great Stan Winston, it's suitably detailed and gruesome when bursting from the sea. However, watching it lumber around on land like the Creature from the Black Lagoon might illicit a chuckle or two.

Still, there's new stuff showing up weekly on SyFy that's far worse. Despite its overlength and occasional silliness, Creature remains pretty entertaining for a made-for-TV movie, with serviceable performances, decent attack scenes and some jackass characters whose violent deaths are well deserved (okay, maybe not the cute little seal). It's not gonna make anyone forget Jaws, but you knew that already.

EXTRAS: None

KITTY CONSENSUS:
NOT BAD...LIKE CAT CHOW

May 13, 2015

Blu-Ray Giveaway: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, SEASON TWO

FREE KITTENS MOVIE GUIDE and LIONSGATE are giving away Blu-Ray copies of Orange is the New Black, Season Two.

Nominated for 12 Primetime Emmys and four Golden Globes, the “smart, salty and outrageous” (The New Yorker) smash hit Orange Is the New Black – Season Two arrives on Blu-ray (plus Digital HD), DVD (plus Digital) and Digital HD May 19 from Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Catch up on Season One, now available to own for the first time on Digital HD starting May 19.

Based on the best-selling memoir by Piper Kerman, the hugely popular dark comedy from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan is a groundbreaking show and winner of the Best Comedy Series at the Critics’ Choice Awards, as well as Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards.

To enter, simply leave us a message in KITTY KONTACT, located in the sidebar at the top of this page. Winners will be chosen at random.

May 12, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE

Starring Marshall Thompson, Shawn Smith, Kim Spalding, Ann Doran, Dabbs Greer, Paul Langton, Ray "Crash" Corrigan. Directed by Edward L. Cahn. (1958, 69 min).
Olive Films

Of course, any sci-fi or horror disciple worth their salt regularly drops to their knees and worships at the alter of Alien. It’s one of the most influential genre films of all time; the list of subsequent movies it has inspired is longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even today, almost 40 years later, countless directors and screenwriters borrow liberally from Ridley Scott’s classic.

But as revered as it is, Alien itself probably wouldn't exist if not for a small, mostly-forgotten film with the exact same premise (and some strikingly-similar scenes) released 21 years earlier. For some of you, this might be like learning God actually gave the world two sons: the charismatic, good-looking messiah we admire and worship, and the prematurely-balding older brother who lacked the same ambition and remained a simple carpenter for the rest of his life. Still, Jesus may have once looked up to his big brother for inspiration and guidance, much like younger siblings generally do when Mom and Dad aren't around.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space is the sci-fi equivalent of that older brother, and Alien fans might be surprised at how much their beloved film steals borrows from this low-budget piece of drive-in fodder. In fact, part of the fun of watching this movie today is discovering the striking similarities between the two. For example:
  • A crew of astronauts lands on a hostile planet (in this case, Mars) for a rescue mission.
  • After taking off, they discover an alien creature is onboard.
  • The creature consists mostly of teeth.
  • The creature is sneaking through the air vents to get around in the ship, which one unfortunate crew member discovers when hunting it down. 
  • Crew members die one-by-one, similar to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
  • The creature turns out to be almost indestructible, impervious to bullets, fire, electricity, radiation and toxic gas.
  • In fact, the only way to kill it is to open an airlock and expose it to the vacuum of space.
"Okay...which one of you left the seat up?"
Okay, so maybe you’re a tad disillusioned that Alien isn’t quite as original as you once thought. Does this mean It! The Terror from Beyond Space a better movie? Of course not. Alien still deserves its status as an all-time classic, yet there’s a lot of fun to be had in checking out this old relic, which is actually pretty entertaining on its own terms. Sure the special effects are archaic, but like Alien, it benefits from low-key performances and smart dialogue, with a story that has since-proven to be timeless.

Any true fan of a particular genre needs to acknowledge and appreciate the older films which make such love possible. While no classic, It! The Terror from Beyond Space deserves a bit of that same love thrown its way, especially since nobody involved with Alien ever did.

EXTRAS: None.

KITTY CONSENSUS:
Purr...there's a lot of fun to be had comparing this ol' thing to a modern classic.

May 11, 2015

DVD Review: [REC]4: APOCALYPSE

Starring Manuela Velasco, Paco Manzanedo, Hector Colome, Ismael Fritschi, Crispulo Cabezas, Paco Obregon. Directed by Jaume Balaguero. (2014, 95 min).
Sony

Fans of director Jaume Balaguero's REC series will be happy to know he's back onboard (after skipping the forgettable [REC]3) for this fourth installment. Perhaps the best praise one can give this film is, if you loved the first two films, [REC]4 offers more of the same.

Actually, that's not entirely true. [REC]4 is the first in the series not presented as found footage (which suits me fine because the novelty wore off years ago). The setting is different, as well. Instead of a quarantined apartment building, this one takes place onboard a ship at sea.

However, Manuela Velasco is back from the first two films as reporter Angela Vidal. In fact, [REC]3 is completely ignored as this one picks up where the first sequel left off. Everyone who survived the apartment ordeal (where a blood-born virus turns the people into violent savages) has been rounded up and put onboard a cargo ship run by a team of researchers to find a cure for the deadly virus. Of course, these researchers, headed by the cold-blooded Dr. Ricarte and aided by armed soldiers, underestimate what they’re dealing with. It isn’t long before more poor saps are becoming infected left and right.

Barbecue parties without napkins can be a messy affair.

As the body count rises, Angela, aided by portly computer geek Nick (Ismael Fritschi, in an amusing performance) and Guzman (Paco Manzanedo), must combat the infected monsters and Dr. Ricarte if they want any chance of getting off the ship alive.

[REC]4 offers the usual amount of blood & guts action typical of the series. On the other hand, the film offers a few new story twists late in the game, and even if they seem more reminiscent of the Alien franchise than 28 Days Later, it’s nice to see there’s still some life left in this franchise. Longtime fans of these films will want to check it out.

EXTRAS: "REC 4: Making Of"

KITTY CONSENSUS:
NOT BAD...LIKE CAT CHOW

May 10, 2015

Blu-Ray Giveaway: THESE FINAL HOURS

FREE KITTENS MOVIE GUIDE and WELL GO USA are giving away Blu-Ray copies of the intense apocalyptic film, These Final Hours.

In this apocalyptic drama, James (Nathan Phillips) is a troubled young man on a mission. He’s desperate to join his girlfriend Vicky (Kathryn Beck) at the ‘party to end all parties’ and numb any feelings as the world comes to an end. On his journey however, James is greeted by a lawless and chaotic city, facing a cataclysmic event that will end life on the planet, and he discovers that getting to where he needs to be will not be easy. Along the way, he saves the life of a girl named Rose (Angourie Rice), frantically searching for her father. Out of options, James invites Rose to join him. Together they discover how they would truly like to spend their last moments on Earth in this world gone mad.

To enter, simply leave us a message in KITTY KONTACT, located in the sidebar at the top of this page. Winners will be chosen at random. 

May 9, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: THE DROWNSMAN

Starring Michelle Mylett, Caroline Korycki, Gemma Bird Matheson, Sydney Kondruss, Clare Bastable, Ry Barrett. Directed by Chad Archibald. (2014, 87 min).
Anchor Bay

Even though The Drownsman offers nothing new to the horror genre, I kind of enjoyed it. Perhaps it was my frame-of-mind at the time, somewhat weary of all the found-footage fiascoes, CGI ghostfests or the latest zombie-flick-of-the-week I've reviewed lately.

The Drownsman is none of those, yet still doesn't have an original bone in its body. Within a few minutes of watching, it's clear the film's biggest influence is A Nightmare on Elm Street. We have Sebastian Donner, a serial killer who enjoys drowning his female victims. But one of them, Isabelle, turns the tables and drowns him instead. Years later, after nearly drowning herself, Madison (Michelle Mylett) develops severe hydrophobia, much to the chagrin of her friends, who think she's going crazy. However, Madison's fear turns out to be well-founded when Sebastian, through water, returns to claim more victims.

"Where's my ducky? WHERE'S MY DUCKY?!"

While The Drownsman isn't especially scary, this is a nifty concept which presents its primary villain as sort-of an aquatic Freddy Krueger, reaching out from faucets and washing machines to increase the body count. On paper, this sounds laughable, but director/co-writer Chad Archibald mostly has us buying into the whole thing (at least while we're watching) and includes a few unexpected plot twists during the final act. None of this stands up to much scrutiny, but it's fairly entertaining, with serviceable performances by the entire cast.

I, for one, appreciated sitting down to enjoy an old school boogeyman story that, while totally conventional, didn't insult my intelligence (the story doesn't rely on characters acting stupidly). Sebastian Donner isn't likely to stay in our public consciousness like Jason or Freddy, but he's a serviceable-enough villain to keep us interested.

EXTRAS: None

KITTY CONSENSUS:
NOT BAD...LIKE CAT CHOW

May 8, 2015

Blu-Ray Review: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini, Luke Grimes. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. (2015, 126/129 min).
Universal

I never read that grammatically-blasphemous piece of mom-porn known as Fifty Shades of Grey (why would I?), but its butchery of standard English is already legendary. The book sold in stupid amounts anyway. So of course Hollywood came a-callin'. And yeah, the movie made stupid amounts of money, too (mostly during its opening weekend). Still, considering the explicitness of the book's BDSM subject matter, I imagine many folks (including fans) may have shied away from the film in theaters. After all, watching people have kinky sex has always been more enjoyable in the comfort of your own home than when surrounded by strangers.

For them, I suppose I need to address the main questions they undoubtedly have regarding this Blu-Ray release:

1) Is the movie as badly-written and unintentionally funny as the book?
Fortunately or unfortunately, the answer is no. Sure, some of the dialogue will illicit a few chuckles, but the movie isn't as stupid as one might assume. Overall, the performances by the entire cast are fairly decent considering the material they have to work with (which is pretty slight). Those expecting high camp will likely be disappointed.

2) Is it as explicit, kinky and nasty as its reputation?
Not really. There's a lot of nudity (mostly provided by Dakota Johnson) and scenes of bondage, but for the most part, the movie tries (and largely fails) to romanticize its notorious sex scenes. While somewhat audacious, they are far from erotic.

3) So, is it a decent love story?
Not especially, mainly because the main characters are largely uninteresting. Young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) may be sexy and suave, but despite repeatedly defending his penchant for S&M with “It’s how I am,” we never really identify with him. The same goes for Ana (Johnson), initially a college waif (and virgin) who’s quickly sucked into Grey’s world of sexual peculiarities without ever providing the audience a reason why she’d be even remotely aroused by them.

"Hey, Ana...guess where my hand's been."
4) I loved the book. Will I be disappointed?
Yes or no, depending on your expectations. You gotta remember this is a film released by a major studio (Universal), so of course the notorious tampon scene ain’t gonna happen, nor any other moment which would push it into NC-17 territory (this also applies to the unrated version available on this disc). On the other hand, the story itself follows the novel pretty closely (albeit perfunctory).

5) So, is it a terrible movie, like most critics said?
Not exactly. As stated before, the performances are decent and the screenplay mostly does-away with author E.L. James’ cringe-worthy prose. I also have to admit that the scene in which Ana & Christian discuss the terms of their Dominant/Submissive contract is pretty damned amusing, which ingeniously morphs into the single truly sexy moment in the entire film.

I watched this with my wife. After it was over, she said it was like watching a dirty Hallmark Channel movie (she’s seen a lot of ‘em, so she‘d know). Her opinion is perhaps the most accurate assessment of Fifty Shades of Grey: If you’re already onboard, you’ll accept the slight characters, shallow attempts at romance and enjoy the added bonus of kinky sex.

If not...why are you still reading this?

EXTRAS:

  • Unrated & theatrical versions of the film (unrated version is about 3 minutes longer with an alternate ending which doesn't really improve things)
  • A (very) brief teaser for Fifty Shades Darker
  • Music Videos (including a behind-the-scenes look at "Earned It"
  • DVD & Digital Copies
  • Featurettes: "Behind the Shades" (making-of); "EL James & Fifty Shades" (author profile); "The Pleasure of Pain"; "Christian's Apartment: Set Tour"; "The World of Fifty Shades of Grey: Christian Grey"; "The World of Fifty Shades of Grey: Ana"; "The World of Fifty Shades of Grey: Friends and Family" 
KITTY CONSENSUS:
Not bad, depending on your expectations
(you may just as easily hate it)