Archive for the ‘Celluloid’ Category

The Drew Struzan Effect

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Boris Karloff as the Mummy, 2012.

Being a person who avidly looks forward to any and all documentaries on artists and illustrators, the DVD release Drew: The Man Behind the Poster came as a welcome sight. Erik Sharkey’s flawed but very interesting 2012 doc acquaints us with the iconic ’80s movie artist Drew Struzan. If you see that name and think “Drew who?,” perhaps a list of his most memorable posters will ring a bell – Star Wars. Back to the Future. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Muppet Movie. The Goonies. The Thing. Blade Runner. Police Academy!

While Drew: The Man Behind the Poster tends to get too superficial at times, it’s a worthwhile and admiring portrait. Director Erik P. Sharkey got an impressive array of Hollywood types to sing Struzan’s praises, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Guillermo Del Toro, Thomas Jane, and Frank Darabont. The film opens with a documentary cliché that I particularly loathe – the endless montage of people fawning over the subject – a sequence which would undoubtedly make the laid-back Struzan cringe. The following 90 minutes, however, establish Struzan as an unassuming regular-guy with an extraordinary gift for rendering movie stars with the right balance of painterly expression and fairy dust.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was made from the point of view of a movie fan wanting to dig deeper into the guy behind moviedom’s most iconic posters – from an artist’s perspective, it’s something of a letdown. The best sequences have Struzan discussing his start in the funky ’70s L.A. art scene, including his early album covers for Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and others. Another good sequence has Struzan and Charles White III gabbing about their collaboration on the famous Star Wars retro-look poster (I also loved the part with Struzan and an obviously grateful Lucas together, perusing the Star Wars art). One amazing thing that comes across is how prolific he was, often re-doing completed artwork from scratch without breaking a sweat (the adding of Mary Steenburgen to the Back to the Future Part III poster is the standout in that regard). As is befitting a film that climaxes at San Diego Comic Con, however, you have to wade through a lot of puffery to get to the meat. This blog post by illustrator Jed Alexander explains that frustration pretty well, along with providing some primo examples of work from Struzan and his contemporaries.

While The Man Behind the Poster never strays far from being a simple celebration of Drew and his art, there is a little bitterness around the edges. The subtext of this movie is basically “Why did they stop making posters like Drew’s?” Sadly, even in the case of an über-talented artist like Struzan, Hollywood has moved on from using illustrators (by and large) for marketing their stuff. After all, it’s easier for a studio to exert control over a Photoshopped montage of movie star heads floating in the sky. If that turn of events affected the mellow Struzan, it doesn’t show as he’s seen in the film having a comfortable semi-retirement – painting his own subjects and enjoying quality time with his family.

For this write-up, a review copy of Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was supplied by the folks at Kino Lorber. You can buy a copy of this DVD at Kino’s site, or at

Blade Runner re-release poster art, 2003.

Adventures in Babysitting poster detail, 1987.

Ladyhawke limited-release poster art, 1985.

Sahara poster art detail, 1983.

Sketch for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade poster concept, 1989.

Hellboy special edition art, 2004.

The Goonies poster art detail, 1985.

Czech Western Parody: A Brief Guide

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Jiri Trnka – The Song of the Prairie (Arie Prerie) (1948)

I’m coming up with some interesting stuff to share at 4 Color Cowboy. The Song of the Prairie, a 1948 Western operetta parody from Czech animator Jiri Trnka, is one of them. A charmingly stylized tale of a cowboy serenading a lovely maiden while the black-hatted villain wreaks havoc, this stop-motion short film is similar in style to the George Pal Puppetoons. The 20-minute film isn’t available on DVD, but it can be viewed here. Even digitized on a computer screen, the animation and character designs amaze.

Although obscure in the U.S., Song of the Prairie is apparently a cherished classic in its homeland (similar, I imagine, to what we feel about the Rankin-Bass animated TV specials). The song warbled by the cowboy in this film became so popular, in fact, that it was reprised in another Czech Western parody, the 1964 live action musical Limonádový Joe aneb Konská Opera, a.k.a. Lemonade Joe. This film has its own adherents, especially considering that its broad, subversive take on Western clichés came along a decade before Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. At 4 Color Cowboy, I assembled a bunch of poster designs that show how Lemonade Joe was sold throughout Europe and in the U.S. Based on the fun, cartoony images on those posters alone, I’d so love to seek this one out.

Flick Clique: October 28 – November 3

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

A Cat in Paris (2010). Along with the Mambo-era romance Chico & Rita, this charming French production was the other surprise nominee for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Academy Awards. Like Chico, the story is a little too slight to be considered a truly great film, but it does have some impressive, beautifully colored imagery to recommend it (and hopefully alert Hollywood to the fact that not all successful animated films have to adhere to that Pixar/DreamWorks template). A Cat in Paris follows a Parisian cat (but of course), who comes to the aid of Zoe, the lonely, traumatized little girl who takes care of him. The independent kitty also belongs to an athletic, kindly petty thief in the city, and together they help nab the criminal who’s planning the heist of an ancient artifact – the same man pursued by Zoe’s mom, a police detective (he also murdered Zoe’s dad). Like I said, not much of a story to hang on to, and yet the visuals – computer aided and yet more warm and vivid, like a living story book – are dazzling enough to make it a winner. I enjoyed this one more than Chico & Rita, yet Christopher preferred the latter.

Harakiri (1919) and The Wandering Shadow (1920). Two films from Kino’s forthcoming Fritz Lang: The Early Works DVD collection. Though not without their archival value, these torrid dramas are very typical of that early silent period (stodgy, inert). Neither of them give any indications of the studied, visually resplendent directing style that Lang would later be known for, but they have a few positive points. Harakiri is a Japan-set update on Madame Butterfly with exotic (over the top, actually) production design; The Wandering Shadow counters a confusing story with lovely photography of the German Alps. At DVD Talk, I will shortly be posting a full review of these (plus the third film in the set, 1921′s Four Around the Woman).
Pulse (2006). This was our annual “scary” movie pick for us to watch in the back room while the trick-or-treaters ignored our house. I dunno why, but we always strike out this time of the year – and this soggy techno-thriller was no exception. This was a remake of a Japanese scary flick (bad sign #1) about a group of college students who are shocked to find chat messages and visions of their friend (who had recently committed suicide) on their computers and cell phones. Soon they are drawn into a terrifying cyber-world in which ghostly figures corrupt their souls and eventually transform them into chalky black dust, sucking their souls into the ether and creating a nationwide epidemic. Too dull to be frightening. Much of the film’s visuals were blatantly ripped off from the opening credits of Se7en, and the scares came out too contrived and too often to be truly effective. The cast (headed by Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder) contributes decent-enough performances. The single most annoying thing about Pulse: every shot has that dingy-blue post-production effect that seems to have gripped most recent scary-flicks.

DVD Talk reviews:
Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters (1996-2011) – Recommended

Flick Clique: October 21-27

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007). During some down time this week, I caught this documentary on Netflix streaming. It’s a sleeper, similar to the acclaimed The King of Kong (many of the same figures appear in both). Chasing Ghosts tracks down the World Videogame Champions of 1982, a diverse group of geeky boys who gathered in a tiny Iowa town to be photographed for Life magazine (the year-end issue, a mag that I personally remember well). The film catches up with the men, now mostly in their 40s and 50s, and their laid-back, hippie-ish mentor, Walter Day, the first person to coordinate and track high scores on the early coin-op arcade games on a nationwide scale. The director, Lincoln Ruchti, seems to enjoy highlighting the eccentricities of the guys – and yet they always appear natural and grounded. Surprisingly, most of them drifted away from videogaming after their early ’80s day in the sun. Personally, I wasn’t much into coin-op back then (being an Atari kid and all), yet this one inspired a lot of nostalgia. The film is a bit schizophrenic at times (it’s sort of admiring and patronizing at the same time), but I enjoyed it all the same.
A Fine Madness (1966). Ever wonder what Sean Connery was doing in between James Bond flicks? One of his outside efforts was this “kooky” comedy with Sean as an unhinged Scottish poet living in New York City. Connery’s boorish mannerisms alienate everyone except his coarse wife (Joanne Woodward), who has him hook up with a celebrity psychologist (Patrick O’Neal) to cure his writer’s block. Connery’s eccentricity and swarthy appeal grabs the attention of O’Neal’s colleagues, but it gets a little dicey when he goes after the doctor’s icy but beautiful wife (Jean Seberg). This was listed in Entertainment Weekly‘s 1991 issue spotlighting great films that “you’ve never heard of.” I’d apply a lot of words to this one; “great” ain’t one of them. How about shrill (especially Woodward’s shrieking performance), stupid, unfunny, pointless and obnoxious? It does have some nice shots of mid-’60s New York, and Connery is quite handsome, that’s about it.
The Gang’s All Here (1941). Another cruddy yet somehow fascinating old b-movie from my Comedy Kings public-domain-o-rama DVD set. With a title like that, you might expect a barrel ‘o laughs, but in actuality this is a rather straightforward, leaden-paced truck driving melodrama bolstered (slightly) by youthful stars like Frankie Darro, Marcia Mae Jones and Jackie Moran. Darro and pop-eyed Maintain Moreland are job seekers who land a produce-hauling job with a firm that has had tussles with a rival trucking firm. This was pure product from poverty row studio Monogram, sticking together pairs of proven actors (Jones and Moran had played apple-cheeked lovers before, and Darro and Moreland also headlined a few buddy comedies) and hoping things would somehow click. They often didn’t work out (like in this one), but the films were so cheaply and quickly done that it really didn’t matter. That slapdash quality was part of what made them interesting.

DVD Talk reviews:
Pete’s Dragon: 35th Anniversary Edition (1977) – Rent It
Waterloo Road – Series 1 (2006) – Recommended

Flick Clique: October 7-13

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Chico & Rita (2010). Like most everyone else, we first caught wind of this musically inclined Spanish production when it became a surprise nominee for the Best Animated Feature Oscar award earlier this year. In telling a sweet and energetic story that spans Cuba and the U.S. across several decades, the filmmakers contributed a lot of beautifully staged shots accented with terrific salsa/mambo music (which was by and large newly recorded). The story follows an aged musician, Chico, as he recalls his years with Rita, a beautiful singer whom he falls for in 1940s Havana. She joins his jazz combo and shares his bed, but before you can say A Star Is Born, she is swept away to New York City and groomed to be a recording star and big-time actress. As Chico and his band-mates follow her to the U.S., she lets it be known that she no longer carries a torch for him – but their loyalty towards each other often says otherwise. This was such an interesting feature with several awe-inspiring scenes (usually involving characters moving from place to place in a detailed landscape) – definitely deserving of the nomination, although its simplistic (OK, trite) story puts it a notch below stuff like The Secret of Kells or Persopolis. It does have a striking, graphical look with fluid animation that was accomplished via a digital version of rotoscoping. The characters have a unique, thick-lined and colorful design (although we wondered why Rita had full frontal nudity while Chico was modestly clad in long pants), perhaps not quite as facially expressive as they should have been, but tenderly drawn. And the soundtrack was wonderful.
Death Race 2000 (1975). Cheesy fun. In the year 2000, five teams of hotshot racers aim to complete a heavily hyped televised cross-country race, scoring points for running over people and eliminating the competition along the way. But wait, a renegade band of subversives is trying to stop them! Not too sci-fi in tone, very drive-in downmarket, and there are some annoying characters – yet Roger Corman did right by emphasizing the comic aspects of the story. I enjoyed Sylvester Stallone and Mary Woronov as particularly obnoxious participants in this groovy ride.
Lonesome (1928) and The Last Performance (1929). Criterion’s recent blu ray of the visually daring part talkie Lonesome (1928) came along as a special birthday gift to myself. One of the main reasons why I grabbed it for my collection – besides the allure of that transitional period in Hollywood, of course – is that the disc actually contains three films by its director, Paul Fejos. Probably the only anthropologist in history to have dabbled in film directing, Fejos certainly is an intriguing figure worthy of Criterion’s examination. This deluxe edition of Lonesome serves as a nifty little portrait of silent-to-sound transitional film, as well! The film Lonesome is quite charming, detailing a pair of young people as they meet-cute at Coney Island, share a memorable evening together, then get separated within the garish mass of humanity surrounding them. It seems like a slighter version of The Crowd or Sunrise, but the main performers (Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent) were appealing and Fejos’s technique brims with playfulness and invention (the color-tinted sequences are a wow). Not quite the revelation that film fans have been trumpeting, perhaps, but sweet and definitely worth seeking out. Fejos’ previous effort, The Last Performance, is a more conventional melodrama with a notably intense Conrad Veidt as a magician who is crestfallen to find that his assistant (Mary Philbin) has fallen for the petty thief (Fred MacKaye) that Veidt hired to help out with the act. The main attraction for this one is Veidt’s creepy performance, but there is some interest as well with the Fejos touch of double exposures and other disorienting effects. This disc contains a third feature, 1929′s lavishly mounted talkie musical Broadway, which will appear in next week’s F.C.

Rory and Mary Sing!

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

This post dovetails into the fact that I left a movie off the last Flick Clique – 1957′s The Big Caper, which we caught on Netflix streaming. I’m not surprised it got left out, actually, since it was a pretty forgettable late noir with Rory Calhoun and a bunch of sleazeballs attempting to break into a bank vault. It’s a decent enough flick to pass the night away, all right, just one without any especially outstanding qualities. The film does boast a rare onscreen leading lady turn by Mary Costa, best known for being the voice of Aurora in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Speaking of Costa and Calhoun, I came across this oddity from The Jack Benny Show in which Mary and Rory sing a duet and do a bit of shilling for The Big Caper. I actually think current talk shows would be much more worthwhile if they had movie stars doing a bit of song ‘n dance. All the better if it comes out as silly as Mary and Rory’s “Mutual Admiration Society.”