Each year I like to single out not only the best new films and TV shows I saw in the year, but the best new discoveries from the full spectrum of film and TV history. If I’m seeing something for the first time, no matter how long ago it was produced, then—guess what?—it’s a new movie. This is the first time I’ve done this for my blog. (And where else are you going to find a Best-of list that includes both Ozu and Pokémon?)
Partly because I retired this year, I made more trips to movie theaters this year than I have in a single year since 2004. I made 31 trips to theaters in 2015 and saw 33 movies. 18 were U.S. productions, eight were from Japan, six from the U.K., three from China, and two from Hong Kong. 24 were new releases dating from 2014 or 2015. 17 were indies and six were documentaries (the most I’ve seen in one year on the big screen in a few decades). Ten were revival/repertory screenings. Only six were major studio Hollywood releases. It helped that I’m now eligible for senior citizen discounts at some theaters. ($8 at the Paris!)
Back in 1998 to 2003, my revived interest in “Old School” kung fu films from Hong Kong and Taiwan happened to coincide with a phenomenal outpouring of these films in low-cost VHS editions, usually bootleg or “gray market,” with many available in mainstream video stores (e.g. Suncoast, Virgin, Tower and FYE), but more often found at discount dealers like Record Explosion and Entertainment Outlet. A company called Xenon (with various subsidiaries) released quite a number of these films as part of the “Wu Tang Collection,” often given new titles designed to appeal to hiphop fans and fans of the rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, which took its name and a significant amount of its content from kung fu films its members had seen on 42nd Street back in the day. One of its members, Ghostface Killah, even took his name from the villain of a 42nd Street hit called THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (aka NINJA CHECKMATE). Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the name applied to another member of the Clan.
Run Run Shaw, Chinese movie mogul, in a picture from the early 1970s
This past Tuesday, January 7, 2014, Sir Run Run Shaw died in Hong Kong at the age of 106. Shaw was a mogul who built a movie empire in Asia, with the Shaw Bros. movie production and distribution company, based in Hong Kong, as its centerpiece. The company was Hong Kong’s biggest movie studio from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, when it shifted its focus from movies to television, creating numerous popular series under the company name, TVB, the dominant television network in Hong Kong, with distribution throughout Asia. Shaw patterned his movie studio in the style of the old Hollywood studios like Warner Bros. and MGM. His counterparts in Hollywood were men like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Harry Cohn. He had numerous stars and production personnel under contract, an array of soundstages with lavish sets for interior scenes, and sprawling backlots filled with standing sets for the numerous historical dramas and adventures the studio made. Many of the top directors of Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s and ’70s worked at Shaw Bros., including Chang Cheh, King Hu, Chor Yuen, Li Han-hsiang and Lau Kar Leung.
On Saturday night, November 30, I realized it was the last night of the 50th anniversary month of the release of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, which opened in New York on November 17, 1963. So, while I had enough time to watch it in its entirety, I put in my Blu-ray copy of the film and watched it. The Blu-ray, an MGM release, offers the standard theatrical cut of 159 minutes, which includes overture, intermission and exit music. When I saw the film in February 1965 at a neighborhood theater in the Bronx, none of that stuff was offered, so the print I saw back then, according to an issue of Cue Magazine from January 1965 that a friend of mine helpfully consulted, was 152 minutes. This is in contrast to the 2-tape VHS copy I bought many years ago that offers a print of three hours and one minute thanks to numerous “trims” (lines of dialogue or bits of action cut here and there from the heads or tails of different scenes) inserted back into the film. I wasn’t crazy about that version since I tend to think that there was a good reason those bits were taken out in the first place. The film moves quicker and is much more streamlined without them.
Today, August 30, 2013, is the 42nd anniversary of my first trip to a 42nd Street movie theater (on August 30, 1971). I’ve amassed quite a bit of material related to that trip, so it seemed like a good opportunity to commemorate it. I’ve managed to re-watch both films seen on that trip and I’ve been in touch with both friends who accompanied me that day. The film that drew us was SHAFT, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as a black private eye with an office in Times Square, an apartment in Greenwich Village, and a client in Harlem, locations that marked three of the major centers of street life in New York in the early 1970s. The second feature chosen to play with it was, oddly enough, a low-budget black-and-white science fiction film made in 1956 called IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, a title that had already played on television regularly by this point. The film was directed by Roger Corman and the stars were Peter Graves, Beverly Garland and Lee Van Cleef. I suspect it was Van Cleef’s presence in the cast that gave it some cachet, since Van Cleef had become popular among 42nd Street audiences thanks to the steady stream of Italian westerns he’d made after reviving his career with appearances in two of the movies making up Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Van Cleef’s name was prominently displayed on the theater marquee as this shot from the time shows:
The theater was the Lyric, situated in the middle of a row of six theaters on the north side of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, the famous “Deuce” of New York legend. SHAFT had opened in New York on July 2 at the DeMille Theater on Broadway and 47th Street, but I don’t know at what point in its run it started playing at the Lyric. The marquee in that picture says “Held Over 4th Big Week,” but I couldn’t say whether that was in July, August or September.
I was in Times Square last night and I went into Forever 21, the store that is situated where Virgin Megastore used to be. What was notable about Virgin was that it extended several stories down. There were three stories of the record/video store, with the ground floor being the store’s top floor. Then there was a multiplex movie theater with four screens that went at least two or three stories further down, like a bomb shelter. It opened as the Sony State in 1996, but was later called the Loew’s State when it changed corporate hands. When Virgin closed in 2009 and was eventually taken over by another retailer, I wondered what would happen to the theaters. Well, last night, I found out. The space was gutted and turned into a lower level of the new store. So those theaters are gone.