This week’s another great one for Blu-ray and DVD with one of last year’s undisputed best films (you can dispute it but you are wrong), and some excellent entertainment aimed at kids in the ’60s that I as an adult in 2015 also find fantastic. Add to that some comedic horror flicks and other miscellany and you have a hell of a lead-up to V-Day.
Good screenplays, really, really good ones, are incredibly rare in Hollywood. Oh there are plenty of good ones out there, but ones that can really make people sit up (stand up even!) and take notice are special. 2014 saw some very good movies made from some very good screenplays, but for sheer brilliance of word, and a precision in which those words were executed, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler really stood out. While the film itself, or the truly masterful and terrifying central performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, probably should have been noticed for Oscar contention, it received a much-deserved Best Original Screenplay nomination, and one that truly earns its “original” tag.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an unhinged man who’s probably on the spectrum somewhere who doesn’t have much in the way of job prospects, but has an overabundance of drive. After selling scrap metal to contractors goes nowhere, he gets turned on to the idea of shooting video of crime scenes and selling it to television news outlets. Rene Russo plays a local L.A. news director (a spiritual successor to Faye Dunaway’s character in Network) who is looking for something more salacious, which is exactly what Bloom is offering. He becomes quite successful at this task, and even hires himself an assistant (Riz Ahmed) whom he’s always lecturing about work ethic, as well as making an enemy in another such “nightcrawler” (Bill Paxton). But the movie isn’t necessarily about news, or even crime, it’s about the depths to which this man, who is clearly a sociopath, will sink in order to be the best and to make his delusions of grandeur a reality. Lou Bloom is a terrifying person, and one you’d never want to meet in a dark alley, a well-lit alley, or anywhere that has people or things.
Gilroy, the brother of filmmaker Tony Gilroy, has been a screenwriter for a number of years, but makes his directorial debut here. He gives the film a greasy sheen, a glossiness befitting one of the grossest characters doing one of the most reprehensible jobs in “entertainment.” He shoots the streets of Los Angeles in crisp clarity, almost always following the actual geography of the area (something I, as a resident of this city appreciate greatly) in order to give the film a definite time and place. There are lots of good movies about Los Angeles out there, but this one feels like it could be happening this second, or any second. A lot of people have compared the movie to Drive and American Psycho, but I think it’s way scarier than either of those, because the psychopath is paid for doing what he does, and it’s sanctioned by people in authority.
Nightcrawler is a very dark, very funny, very disturbing movie about ambition and it’s one I’ll probably watch many more times over the years.
In the 1950s, Disney Animation released four of its most popular films, still to this day: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp. In 1959 they rounded out the decade with their most ambitious and technically complex outing to date, Sleeping Beauty. These are all triumphs of animation in one way or another, but the time and manpower it took to make Sleeping Beauty left the studio zapped for budgets. If they were going to make a movie now, they’d have to find a way to do it on the cheap or risk imploding, despite the popularity. This is what makes 1961’s 101 Dalmatians such a milestone for the studio, and for animation as a viable medium.
Ink and man hours were expensive in those days, so Disney’s earliest collaborator (and the one who, let’s face it, did all the great technical stuff associated with the Mouse) Ub Iwerks decided to figure out a way to transfer the drawings from the animator’s pieces of paper to the cells on which the film would actually be shot. Luckily for Iwerks, a brand new technological marvel had just been invented: Xerox! Yes, they xeroxed all of the individual drawings into the pieces of glass for animating purposes, which saved them untold amounts of money. The animation in the film is a little rocky, you can see the pen-strokes a little bit more than in previous films, especially the extra-clean Sleeping Beauty, but it’s that slight degree of ramshacklery that gives the film a homier vibe.
We’ve all seen this movie a million times, with its story of Dalmatian parents attempting to retrieve their 15 puppies, and ultimately 84 more, from being turned into coats by the deliciously evil Cruella de Vil, but in HD it’s like seeing it for the first time. The animation looks so great, and we do see each hand-drawn line and hand-painted color. Animated movies are works of art, and seeing them on VHS did them no justice. I’ve really enjoyed all the classic Disney films being released on Blu-ray, and even though 101 Dalmatians has never been one of my very favorites, it’s still feels like a warm sweater when I watch it. You know it, you love it, you’ll want this Blu-ray.
We’ve all probably heard of Thunderbirds, the action series that used models and marionettes from the 1960s, which was more or less the basis for Team America: World Police, but its creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson did a whole lot more of these “Supermarionation” programs in the UK, throughout the 1960s, seven different series in the decade. Thunderbirds was done right in the middle, but several of the other series were just as good, if not better, in the case of this show: Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, which aired 32 half-hour episodes between 1967 and 1968. I say better because the technology for the marionettes reached their pinnacle and the writing was some of the best and darkest in Anderson’s producing career.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons tells the story of a future world beset by an alien menace known as “the Mysterons,” a highly-intelligent, incorporeal race that begin their hatred of the planet Earth following the unwitting destruction of a Mysteron settlement on Mars. The Mysterons invade, but to do that they first kill humans and bring them back to life under Mysteron control to do their bidding. The world policing organization known as Spectrum, and its agents who all have color-coordinated names and outfits, are attempting to foil this plot, and the heroic British agent Captain Scarlet is at the forefront. But in the very first episode, Scarlet is taken over and it’s up to Captain Blue, Captain Magenta, Colonel White and the rest of Spectrum to stop him, which they do. He dies. The hero dies in the first episode. But then, he’s somehow brought back to life, with the special Mysteron life-saving powers but without the mind control. He basically then becomes a proto-Captain Jack. He dies, but can always rejuvenate.
The show is pretty formulaic, but also pretty awesome in its execution: every week, the Mysterons have another plot to destroy the Earth and Spectrum and the Angels (women who fly supersonic fighter jets) have to foil it. The plots are actually pretty ingenious, though, and the resolutions include doing investigations or pulling sting operations and things like that. Captain Scarlet is voiced by Francis Matthews who does a Cary Grant impersonation the whole time and really makes the titular hero seem like a man out of time, which works really well. For this series, the puppets were made as close to human scale as they ever had been before, meaning the heads were roughly in proportion to the body instead of being very large. Because of this, special motors were build into the heads for mouth and eye movements, and they were programmed to correspond to the pre-recorded dialogue while the puppeteers manipulated the head and hands. It’s really a marvel.
As great as Thunderbirds is, I think Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is the best of Anderson’s puppet animation shows and one that definitely deserves to be seen by more people these days.
For more Gerry Anderson magic, also check out the earlier, underwater-set show Stingray which is equally awesome, though much more traditional puppety. You can also read my run-down of each of these shows here, including ones that will be coming to DVD soon.
Don’t Look Now — Nicolas Roeg’s haunting and deeply unsettling story about a couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) obsessed by the death of their daughter which is slowly unraveling them. Now in Venice, where a serial killer is on the loose, Sutherland begins thinking he sees his daughter, with her distinctive red raincoat, running around. Is he crazy? Is there something metaphysical going on? Or is it just something more horrifying than we could even imagine? An amazing film, this.
The following are two double-feature Blu-rays with horror rom-coms. Didn’t know there were so many, did you?
Love at First Bite/Once Bitten — George Hamilton plays Dracula in a spoof of vampire movies in the former, while Jim Carrey gets turned into a vampire by Lauren Hutton in the latter.