Tuesday, April 14, 2015

CINEMA WASTELAND: A BREED APART



While there are numerous horror fan conventions taking place around the country these days it’s hard to think of what they were like when it all began. The newest shows are mega-productions featuring the most recognizable stars from the hottest shows and movie around. That means that for horror fans they either feature casts from THE WALKING DEAD or AN AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The sad thing is most of those stars are busy filming and many cancel at the last minute not to mention the fact that they’re riding the wave of popularity at present rather than having established a long list of credentials when it comes to being dedicated to the genre. Not all but many. So what does the die-hard horror fan do when they want to join in with like-minded people with a love of horror?

I’ve had the chance to visit two different horror fan conventions. One that falls into the above category was my least favorite but okay. The best thing about it was the fact that I was finally able to take a vacation with my wife where it was just the two of us. That made it special. As for the show itself it was Scarefest and while they claim to be the best convention in the country I would say they flatter themselves. It was a huge event and by huge I’m talking about the size of the area it was held. It made getting from one place to another a LONG walk and at my age and with back problems it made the show more miserable for me than anything else. It also wasn’t dedicated to just horror fans but the paranormal crowd as well. This ended up being our reason for going since my wife is a dedicated GHOST HUNTERS fan. We had the chance to meet Steve, Dave, Adam and Grant and all were absolutely wonderful to talk with. I also got to meet up again with Ken Foree of DAWN OF THE DEAD. But the rest of the event wasn’t that enjoyable. A party was held in the hotel bar which means that hundreds of people were crammed into a space meant for a tenth of who showed. More attention was paid to cosplay folks than celebrities. And the vendor tables were less oriented towards horror fans and more geared towards things like mystic crystals, incense, psychic readings, vacation trips to haunted locations and the ilk. I think there was 1 table of DVDs for sale and maybe 2 tables with shirts (go Joel Robinson!). Comparing this convention to the other I’d attended I felt it was soulless and geared more towards the mainstream. It felt hollow and I found no connection with the event, those putting it on and others in attendance.

The same can’t be said for Cinema Wasteland.

I just returned from my latest venture into Wasteland and can say that after a ten year gap from my last visit, things have remained fan oriented and fun. I certainly have grown older and perhaps not as involved as in the past, but seeing horror fans connect this way made it enjoyable for me. Not only that, but while I wasn’t as involved with each and every one, you felt like family there.

A lot of this has to do with Ken Kish. I first met Ken while attending Wizard World in Chicago YEARS ago. He was selling T-shirts and videos my son was looking for and mentioned he held his own small convention in Cleveland. With that knowledge my son and I went to the next one there and since then I’ve been several times and my son had missed very few of the twice a year events. And it all boiled down to that first meeting with Ken and his wife Pam. They were both congenial, friendly and you could tell loved what they were doing. And that shows in the Cinema Wasteland events put on in April and October.

Let me give you a small rundown of how it works. The event takes place in a Holiday Inn in Strongsville, OH. While you might think the smaller venue would hurt the event it doesn’t at all (Scarefest in comparison took place in a huge convention hall that felt empty and devoid of life). It brings it in close for fans and celebs alike. You don’t feel crowded (unless you go to a panel that everyone wants to see) and you can walk the aisles of vendors and celeb signings with ease. Once you get your tickets, you walk through the doors into the main hall which is jammed packed with horror fan items. Everything from Living Dead Dolls to T-shirts with horror icons to DVDs (rare and popular) to movie posters and more. At the back end of the hall you’ll find numerous tables set up for the celebs with posters behind them touting their accomplishments. I have yet to meet a celeb at a Wasteland show that wasn’t friendly as could be and took the time to become involved with those there who loved their efforts. This is a convention where they are approachable as opposed to having numerous guards around them. They become part of the group.

During the day much goes on as well as the main room. There are 2 screening rooms, one for video the other for 16mm films, that will show everything from shorts to Three Stooges to classic horror and exploitation films to intermission loops to the movie being featured for that particular show. This time around it was DAY OF THE DEAD. While they didn’t do a panel during the movie this time (they normally present cast members doing a voice over to the celebrated film) they did have a panel discussion for the movie featuring almost the entire cast. The room was packed to the gills and while the sound system was a bit low it offered them a chance to talk about making the movie and to answer questions from the host of the panel and some from the crowd. One thing that happened (and that always happens here) was that the panel recognized the fans in the crowd for their support in coming out and for making them feel like people were actually interested in them and loving their efforts after all these years. It has been 30 years since the film came out. But these celebs said that this was one show where they felt like they were a part of the crowd, like they were being treated like family and loved it. And it’s true. You’re as likely to see one of the celebs out front smoking a cigarette with the crowd as you are to see them at the restaurant inside. There is no pretentious atmosphere here.

Other events are held during the weekend as well. Various horror hosts have special shows they put on. For instance Son of Ghoul of Cleveland hosted his annual Three Stooges fest that ended with a rare 16mm print of a 3-D short they made. He even handed out the once famous red/green lens glasses for all to enjoy the film. On Saturday night there was the annual A. Ghastlee Ghoul show featuring the horror host from Dayton, OH. You never know what to expect here. One time there was a talent show that ended up having a guy playing punk rockers The Ramones songs on a banjo. This time around Ghastlee and his wife Suspira offered a few songs to rock out, a game show that gave contestants the choice of a prize of taking instead what was in Ghastlee’s underwear (he put a second pair on over his clothes and they had to reach in for a different often goofy prize), Sally the Zombie Cheerleader had a game where contestants were blindfolded and had to eat various items the crowd groaned over, a choice of games thought up by Ghastlee and Joe the regular Wasteland door staff and more. It was a bit raunchy, a lot of fun and well attended. Perhaps the only fault with this event was that taking place at night some of the crowd were a bit too inebriated to attend. Their constant heckling and yelling out things that were funny only to them became a distraction that drove some folks out. In the end it was all fun and much free stuff was handed to the crowd. It was all good.

Are you getting the picture yet? Are you seeing that this is not your usual convention? There is so much more involvement here, so much more fun, so much more closeness.  And while this may feature the largest collection of tattoos, body piercings and black T-shirts this side of a biker bar the group that makes up the crowd feels like the complete opposite. These are the most congenial, the most friendly, the most accepting group of people you are likely to meet. When you leave at the end of the show chances are you will have made several new friends. If you run into them anywhere, including online, you are suddenly a part of the group. You are family. And that’s the main thing that makes this show better and different than any other.

It’s not about the autographs (which by the way Ken insists on keeping the prices reasonable as opposed to what those other shows are charging. Expect them to be much higher). It’s not about the screenings. It’s not about the shows. It’s not about the parties or the hanging out with friends in front of the hotel. It’s about becoming a part of the bigger picture. It’s a combination of people that ranges from DVD company owners, fans, celebs, vendors, artists and more who will join together for a love of horror and exploitation films, who will stand around together discussing which movies they love or hate, who will share a drink or a smoke and a phone number because they are a part of the “family” now.

So if you decide you want to visit a convention you have two options. Go to the boring only-for-profit’s-sake shows where you will likely stand in line for an hour to pay $40-50 for an autograph and never see the celeb anywhere but their table all weekend while never making a friend of anyone else there…or…you can go to Cinema Wasteland where if you are willing everyone is your friend, the celebs mingle with the crowd, an autograph doesn’t go over $20 (at least not that I saw) and the odds of getting enough sleep are rare due to your involvement with the whole group. While once the weekend was over I turned to my friend who went along and quoted Danny Glover by telling him I was getting to old for this shit, I did have a good friend. I made some new friends. I saw some old ones. I adopted each of my son’s friends as my own. And I knew that if I had to choose one convention to go to, this would be it.

If you’re interested in Cinema Wasteland here is a link to their web site. While they haven’t posted the details on the next show (come on, give Ken and Pam a chance to recover from this one!), I can tell you that the October show will be celebrating the third movie in the franchise, LEATHERFACE: CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3. Members of the cast and crew are scheduled to be there. So check the web site frequently and start making plans. October will be here sooner than you think.

Click here to visit the Cinema Wasteland site.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK COLLECTOR’S EDITION: I HEARD YOU WERE DEAD



I’ve long been a huge fan of John Carpenter, so much that when asked what my top 5 movies are I always include HALLOWEEN. But that wasn’t the only great movie that can be attributed to the director. You’d also have to include THE FOG, THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, VAMPIRES and of course ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. To this day each of these films holds up to the test of time. While great on their own, when a special edition comes out its time to celebrate. Such is the case with NEW YORK.

If you’ve never seen the movie (can it really be 34 years old?!?) it features Kurt Russell in what was a career changing performance. For the most part up until that time Russell was known for his child and teen performances in television and Disney movies. Having worked with Carpenter in the starring role of ELVIS, the two would partner up for this film and suddenly Russell became a leading man.

In the film Russell plays “Snake” Plissken, an ex-special forces operative who went rogue and became a criminal. But seeing as how this takes place in the future, criminals aren’t treated the same way they are now. In that distant future (whose date in actuality has since come and gone) Manhattan has been walled over and is not a maximum security prison where the inmates run the asylum. With no police force in effect with the exception of watching the walls, inmates rule themselves. This is Snake’s destiny.

Except that circumstances have placed him in the right place at the right time. Terrorists have taken over Air Force One on its way to a peace summit with the President (Donald Pleasance) on board. A rescue team sent in to save him once his escape pod lands finds he’s been captured by the criminals on the island who have yet to make demands with the exception of no police on the island. Head of security Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) seeing the chance to use Snake to infiltrate the island recruits him with the promise of freedom. To insure Snake doesn’t run, he implants two micro bombs in his neck timed to go off in 24 hours, after which time the President will no longer be of use.

Landing atop one of the World Trade Center buildings in a glider, Snake sets out to locate the President via a tracking bracelet he’s wearing. When he finds it on a bum, Hauk insists he carry on. With the aid of a happy go lucky cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), an old “friend” named Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Brain’s girlfriend (Adrienne Barbeau), Snake sets out to find the President, now a prisoner of the leader on the island, The Duke (Isaac Hayes). Can he rescue him in time? It’s a non-stop action fueled film that runs out the clock before it ends.

The movie does a great job of creating a world unto itself, a Manhattan that is desolate, destroyed and picked over. It does so good a job most will never realize those set pieces were shot in St. Louis. Working with minimal budgets, Carpenter has always chosen the right people to make his visions come to life. That happens here in everything from the location shots to the island center sets to the decaying interiors of buildings in Manhattan. Even now, long after the “future” the movie takes place in the special effects seem great, even if dated. In a world of streaming movies it seems quaint to see green lines on a black screen as top of the line digital views.

Giving a major assist to Carpenter is long time cinematographer Dean Cundey who shot many of Carpenter’s greatest films. Here he makes for some fantastic night shots that keep things in the dark but not so much that you can’t tell what you’re looking at. His use of smoke and shadow help to create the world that we see as much if not more than the locations used. It’s easy to see why Cundey has become one of the best cinematographers in the business.


So what does this collector’s edition offer? First off a 2k high definition transfer as well as two commentary tracks on the first disc. The second disc is filled with extras including specials on the visual effects of the film, scoring the film, images on the set from photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, an interview with actor Joe Unger, an interview with film maker David DeCoteau, a return to the escape from New York featurette, theatrical trailers and photo galleries, and the long thought lost opening sequence of the robbery that landed Snake in trouble to begin with. Some of these items were on previous offerings of the film but some are new as well.

I have several copies of this film in my collection starting with the first DVD release. I later added the updated extras copy. Now I’ve added this one and I’m glad I did. It’s as complete a version as we’re going to get at present. On top of that, Shout/Scream Factory has once more outdone themselves by creating a reversible jacket sleeve that offers original artwork or specially made collector’s edition art. As is always the case, they’ve outdone themselves. If you’re a fan of the film you’ll want to add this one to your collection. If not or if you’ve never seen the movie, it needs to become a part of your collection. It’s just that good. A movie that I have no problem pulling out once a year and enjoying it with every viewing.

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A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: SUBTLE AND DEADLY



If you’re not a fan of violent films don’t let the title of this one scare you away. There is actually very little violence in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, even though it concerns the potential rising of a gangster boss. What the title refers to is the year 1981, considered statistically to be the most violent year in the recent history of New York City.

What the movie actually involves is the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has worked his way to the top of a heating oil business. While he did work his way up he later bought the business from his boss as well as wed his daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain). Successful in his area, he now wants to expand and to help do that he’s attempting to purchase land next door to his operation. With this riverfront location, he can import cheaper oil and take on his competitors. Having placed a down payment using everything he owns as collateral, he now has to make good on the balance within a few days.

But someone doesn’t want to see that happen. Someone has set in motion several problems that will keep Abel from achieving his dreams. As Abel tries to do things on the straight and narrow, he finds it more difficult to work that way in this city than he thought. It begins with the hijacking of his trucks, the first one we see driven by Julian (Elyes Gabel of SCORPION fame). Beaten and hospitalized, the theft takes its toll on Julian. On top of this, a local DA (David Oyelowo) is investigating the company books. While Abel is certain there are no problems, Anna isn’t quite to optimistic and wants to hang on to them as long as possible to go over them.

While his father-in-law once delved into the world of organized crime, Abel wants to steer clear of them at all costs. But with each new roadblock placed in front of him the temptation to do so lingers. Harassed at home by the DA, more trucks stolen and with no one to turn to when the bank who pledged to loan him the money to purchase the land next door backs out, Abel must find a way to fight off those who stand in his way of success without digging a hole from which he can never escape.

The movie plays out like many of the gangster films from the seventies and eighties and has been compared to the movies made by Sidney Lumet. This is actually a great description of the style and feel of the movie. Lumet was known to capture the feel, the heart and soul of what the seedier sides of NYC were like while at the same time showing a love for the city as well. This film does that in spades. Put side by side you might notice the difference, but you would also recognize the similarities as well.

More so than the look of the film is the combination of screenwriting and acting that make this film pop. Isaac turns in a fantastic performance here often reminding at least this viewer of the young Al Pacino in THE GODFATHER, perhaps one of the best performances in screen history. Here he exudes the successful appearance of a business owner in high priced suits and camel hair coat. His attitude is one of slowly simmering anger that almost never boils over. This subdued fa├žade that his character puts on makes him feel all the more dangerous.

Chastain also turns in a great performance. Her character moves from one emotion to the other, at first being the supportive wife and then flipping over to a more manipulative player in the events that take place. She wants what is best for her family, her husband, and is willing to do almost anything to insure that this happens. As with Isaac, her performance is subtle and suggestive, with an underlying sense of danger at her core. Combine these two performances and you have a married couple that will do whatever it takes to become successful.

The movie received plenty of praise when released but seems to have fallen under the radar of most movie theaters. I don’t think it even played in any of the local main theaters here where I live. That’s sad because far too often I find the newest blockbuster playing on 5 of the 20 theaters in the local megaplex. And with 3 movies like that it limits the number of different films playing so we miss out on many great movies that way. Thank goodness we can make up for it via DVD.

The movie meanders along at a steady pace and features less action than one would expect with a title like this. But don’t let that fool you. What you get is a complete story that holds your interest from start to finish. It is definitely worth watching.

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