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Beauty And The Beast (2014) Blu-Ray Review

February 19th, 2017

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Stars – Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux
Director – Christophe Gans

Released by Shout Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast has been brought to the screen in many incarnations. It was even adapted as a TV series twice; once in 1987 and again in 2012. At this point the animated Disney version from 1991 has taken on all comes and beaten them soundly. The Mouse stands tall. Yet even Disney can’t resist going to the well again with the promise of a new live action version due any moment with the lovely Emma Watson star of the Harry Potter films as Belle. It will be a 3D extravaganza that promises to hue closely to the champion animated version. While The Mouse roared another version came out two years ago. Christophe Gans who created the incredible mix of fantasy, martial arts and period drama with the cult favorite Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) helmed his own version. This one draws much more inspiration from the classic 1946 film version by Jean Cocteau. Gans has created a visual tapestry using a fascinating array of CGI artistry. Everything you see has been artfully crafted as if by a Renaissance artist rather than an army of digital technicians. The look of the film is the star and it sparkles as bright as the north star in the night.

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The construction of the film follows the familiar narrative much in the way that the Cocteau film did with a few additions.  The story used to center more around The Beast yet over the years the point of view has become that of The Beauty. Belle has two greedy sisters, two adventurous brothers an a father who has just gone broke. The father stumbles upon a castle deep in the woods. There he finds food and riches which he grabs for his family. Belle has only asked for a rose unlike her siblings. When the father picks a rose the beast jumps out of nowhere. He is outraged that the bountiful food and shiny trinkets were not enough. He will have to pay with his life for stealing the rose. Back he goes to say goodbye to his family. Only Belle returns instead of her father to pay his debt. She accepts that she was the one who asked for the rose. Rather than take her life The Beast gives her free reign of the grounds as long as she agrees to join him for dinner every night at seven o’clock. Their relationship and the gradual falling of Belle for The Beast is the real crux of the tale.  This unfortunately is the part that gets short changed in Gans’ version. There is not a lot of characterization for either lead but more importantly we don’t get to see them slowly warm to each other. The budding of their romance cuts to the full bloom without letting us enjoy the opening of the petals.

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The film opens with a mother reading a story to her two children, similar to the bookends that framed The Princess Bride. At a few of the scarier parts we revisit this scene for just a moment. Mom asks her children if she should carry on with the story or are they too scared. The boy sits in wide eyed wonder, his sister clutching his hand. Yes, please go on. In the beginning of the film colors are held in check. When the father visits the castle it is foreboding, full of grisly dark details. The trees have sharp branches that reach out like tendrils. However with Belle’s appearance there the entire landscape transforms like an enchanted forest. The foreboding clinging dead vines are now a trellis of pretty flowers. In a flashback sequence we see a lovely girl and a valiant man. He is a hunter and we imagine him to be The Beast before he was transformed. He has a group of lovely hunting beagles that are beyond cute. In a neat turn these beagles have been reimagined as small furry lemur looking creatures with adorably large eyes. They inhabit the present story and hide under the bed. Again the look of this movie is a pleasure to take in.

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At first we do not get a clear look at The Beast. We see glimpses of him. His face is reflected in glasses and highly polished dinnerware. When we do get a real good look several things stand out. The face clearly has more feline features. There are whiskers and a large lion-like nose. The hair is coiffed in a very regal way that absolutely recalls the 1946 Cocteau version. It’s a mask alright but not like any mask we are used to. It has been digitally created. Through a motion capture process Vincent Cassel’s facial acting has been preserved. Those are his eyes, his lips, his voice and yet he moves behind a highly detailed face that has been CGI’d on top of his own face. Sure it looks good but it is a bit difficult to get used to. Cassel is a fantastic actor, capable of subtle nuances that he brings to this role. He’s most well know for The Black Swan but he has done many excellent parts. He worked with director Gans before in Brotherhood of the Wolf and starred in Mesrine (2008) with an amazing portrayal of a gangster who has a flair for disguises. He moves wonderfully in this film. Lea Seydoux is beautiful and very compelling here. Gans says in his interview that he spotted her in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) and knew she was his Beauty for this film. Both actors looks so good in front of scenery that is often breathtaking. It’s a shame that we don’t get the interaction between them that the story calls for.

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Gans’ la Belle et la Bete works best as a visual odyssey. The paintings he creates on screen will stop you in your tracks. As we watch the three interviews included with Gans, Cassel and Seydoux it is revealed that 90% of the film was created digitally. For me the CGI succeeds exceptionally well with the set design. Films like Sin City (2005), 300 (2007), and The BFG (2016) have opened this kind of filmmaking up in unbelievable ways. I’m an old school fan of practical effects. I love the look of hardscrabble landscapes in John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns. CGI has become a favored paintbrush that is used now. It may have looked sloppy and cheap when it first started. In the right hands (and there look to be quite a lot of them judging by the credits at the end of many films) some real artful sequences can be created. I absolutely appreciate the look of the film. I am entirely enchanted by it. However all of this is in service of telling a good story. Gans comes up short with the relationship that is backbone of this fairytale. While that may seem unforgivable it is very easy to get caught up in illustrations on the pages of this fabulously illustrated storybook. Like a good children’s book the pictures are intoxicating.

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Video – 2.35:1
This is a stunning looking film. Images are drop dead gorgeous. The look of the Blu-Ray comes out measurably better than the included DVD.

Audio – DTS-HD 5.1 in both English and French, Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and French with subtitles offered in English.
In the dubbed English version the actors speak with genuine French accents. The French language version is preferable though. Music and effects supports the story but the visuals will always be paramount in this film.

Extras – Interviews with director Christophe Gans, actors Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux, Theatrical trailer

The interviews are done in French with easy to follow English subtitles. Gans is always a good interview. He reveals his inspirations for the film and speaks highly of the Cocteau version. He also goes into good detail about the CGI effects. It is fascinating to hear Vincent Cassel describe how the mask was created. He breaks down the three step process he had to use achieve his performance. He says he had to depend on a whole team of digital artists to help realize his portrayal. He also admits this is the first of his films he can let his kids see.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent (for the visuals)

Colors (1988) Blu-Ray Review

February 18th, 2017

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Stars – Robert Duvall, Sean Penn, Maria Conchita Alonso, Damon Wayans, Don Cheadle, Trinidad Silva
Director – Dennis Hopper

Released by Shout Select / Shout Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Right from the beginning this film feels authentic. There is a haze in the air that you can see and almost feel. As we ride along the devastated suburban streets of East Los Angeles in the late eighties we see run down houses. People sit out on the front lawn in easy chairs that look like they have been left out for the garbage truck to pick up. Hip hop music and rap blares with an aggressive bass thump. There is a constant din of people talking with or at each other. There are tons of school age kids everywhere. They lounge around draped over the railings and stairs in front of houses. Robert Duvall is Hodges the experienced cop. He’s got a new partner Danny played by Sean Penn. Danny is eager to prove his mettle. He spends the days either roughing up people in the neighborhood or combing his hair just right in any available mirror. He is so amped up and eager to prove himself that it feels dangerous to be around him. Hodges on the other hand has an easy rapport with many of the gang members on the streets. He’ll let somebody go and avoid being dragged down to the station as long as they understand they owe him one. It’s Hodges form of credit in the barrio.

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In the excellent interview included as an extra screenwriter Michael Schiffer says he did a lot of research with the real cops who work the gangs. His script conveys this feeling of just riding around day in and day out. Cases come together almost by happenstance with one thing crashing into another. Duvall and Penn behave with such an ease in their roles that we can spend hours aimlessly driving through the various neighborhoods. They liven up the day by jiving around with the locals. Hodges seems to have legitimate feeling for some of the guys he has seen over the years. However when we find out that he has less than a year to go before he retires we can be assured he’ll get shot at the end. There is also a romance between Danny and a pretty local girl Maria Conchito Alonso who he picks up at a fast food joint. While those story arcs feel contrived and hammered into the otherwise easy going script the level of performances that the actors give make this almost forgivable.

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Dennis Hopper did an amazing job with his first film Easy Rider (1969). There was a similar feeling of just cruising around and meeting life on its own terms. Whether you call that a beatnik sensibility or an appreciation for the Mise-en-scène Hopper seems to strike that same groove he had found so long ago. The film he made after Easy Rider, The last Movie (1971) was all but incoherent. He only made one more picture after that and it is easy to see why studio would be hesitant to trust him with any kind of budget. Just like the brilliant cinema photographer Laslo Kovaks helped him with Easy Rider, Haskell Wexler shoots Colors with an incredible eye. You have to credit Hopper too though. Dennis strikes gold like he did with his first film. The look of the film and the absolutely authenticity of almost every single performance stands out. The actors seem very natural. No one is trying to shoot the moon. Things are toned down, reigned in and the control really shows. As soon as I saw Trinidad Silva I immediately pegged him as the wise cracking street tough who somehow became a lawyer on the Hill Street Blues TV series. He excels as the gang leader they call Frog here.

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Amidst all this texture there are a few fight scenes and two car chases that are off the charts. At times it feels like the stunt people are just dying to top the work that William Friedkin did the last time he was in the neighborhood with To Live and Die in L.A. in 1985. Cars drive pedal to the metal through the narrow streets. Tires screech across lawns. Cars trade paint with any wall that gets too close. These two car chases are visceral and a sheer delight to see. The savageness of some of the close quarter fight scenes features some terrific fight choreography. No one fight like any kind of boxer or martial artists. There is a real street quality to these sequences.

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When you watch Colors you get immersed in the gang culture of those days. The drug dealing, the music and the constant tug of war between the Bloods and the Cripps. Blue and red handkerchiefs signify something wroth dying for. The loyalty to the barrio and one’s neighborhood feels very real here. While some of melodramatic turns the narrative takes feel too familiar the overall feel of the film is too good to let that bring it down. Duvall delivers his usual excellent acting job. He really is a splendid actor who is full of subtleties. Penn is capable of exploding. While he’s a firecracker here director Hopper manages to keep him from going off. I had not seen this film in a long time. Not only does it hold up but it truly exceeded all expectations. Ride around the streets with these guys. It’s a helluva trip that comes highly recommended.

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Video – 1.85:1
This is a longer 127 cut. The look of the films is aces. The haze, the heat and everything else just ooze from the screen with the way Wexler shot this. Black levels, colors and details are all fine. You’re in such good hands with DP Wexler here. There is a night scene that features a chase through a couple of blocks. We look down from high overheard as a searchlight from a police chopper pinpoints the guy trying to run away. The cops on the ground follow the light. It’s a cool looking shot that must have been a bear to get right.

Audio – DTS-HD Master Stereo with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The soundtrack has a lot of rap but also some wonderful songs that just hit the time and place. Songs like One Time One Night by Los Lobos and Low Rider by War feel just right. There are also a couple of doo wop songs that gently waft in the background. They play ever so gently and sweetly. Herbie Hancock’s soundtrack at times is dated by the synthesizer sounds but most of it is cool and evocative. He seems like he is standing on the shoulders of Quincy Jones many times and that’s a big compliment.

Extras – The Unrated Cut of the Film, including footage restored from the International Cut and the original Home Video Cut.
“A Cry of Alarm” – An interview with screenwriter Michael Schiffer
“Cops and Robbers” – An interview with Technical Advisor/Ex-L.A.P.D. Gang Division Dennis Fanning

The lengthy interview with screenwriter Michael Schiffer is wonderful. He tells the whole story of how he got what was his first job with this film. He’s got strong recall about working with Dennis Hopper and the actors in the film. It’s nice to see how revealing he is about what he tried to accomplish and how gratified he felt when his work came to life in the hands of actors like Duvall.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

No Retreat No Surrender (1986) Blu-Ray Review

February 18th, 2017

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Stars – Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kurt McKinney, J.W. Fails, Tae-jeong Kim, Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, Kathie Sileno
Director – Corey Yuen

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This is a home grown martial arts film set in comfortable suburbia that has a few healthy spoonfuls of The Karate Kid in the mix. The director Corey Yuen had made the celebrated action film, Yes Madam in Hong Kong before this one. Yuen went on to direct four excellent films with Jet Li as well as the first Transporter movie with Jason Statham. In star Kurt McKinney’s excellent interview we learn that at this point he only spoke Chinese and focused his attention mainly on the fight scenes. Fortunately the screenwriter was on hand to translate and relay instructions.

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Virtually everyone on camera looks like this is their first time there. The film is full of eighties hair styles and clothes. The music is driven by heavy synth keyboards and programmed drums. Kurt McKinney was a student at his father’s karate school but the Russian karate Mob forced him to move him out. Why would Russian bad guys want to move in on Karate schools? How much money can there be there? This was a tried and true motivation in many Chinese martial arts film so we just have to buy that taking over a school was standard behavior for bad guys. The family moves to Seattle where Kurt can visit Bruce Lee’s grave for inspiration and take his new girl out for a fun day in the city.  He meets some bad kids. Those bad kids train at the local bad karate school. Soon a vision of Bruce Lee visits Kurt in his home made garage dojo and starts to train him. There are plenty of errors about the martial arts like calling Lee Sensei which is the Japanese word for teacher as opposed to the Chinese word Sifu more associated with Kung-Fu. Kim Tai Chong is a bit ridiculous in the role but you just have to go with it.

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J.W. Fails is a real bright spot in the cast. He plays Kurt’s ever optimistic friend who can break dance and do Michael Jackson moves left and right. The film’s big claim to fame though is the debut of the muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. He plays Ivan Kraschinsky and evil Russian Karate enforcer. Just the year before in Rocky IV Dolph Lungren played the evil Russian boxing champion Ivan Dago who threatened to crush Rocky. Van Damme is also called Ivan here and his stone faced demeanor is very reminiscent of Dolph’s performance. That’s not really a knock just part of the fun.

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The fight scenes are all well done and exciting. This is one of those marital arts film, like The Karate Kid that ends with our hero saving the day at a tournament. What we have here is a real low budget tournament but once Jean Claude Van Damme moves to the corner and jumps up on the ropes in a perfect leg split things begin to rock. He takes on all comers. It is clear that this man can kick like few others. The climatic fight at the end with our hero Kurt is a blast. Both stars have plenty of real martial arts in their background and Corey Yuen makes sure to show them off to the max. The film is corny and steeped in eighties clichés yet it had garnered a legion of fans who were at the right age at the right time. No Retreat No Surrender has had several releases over the years. Some have left out parts of the music or the scenes with Kurt and his lady friend having their date in Seattle. Some version intercut more inspirational fake Bruce Lee clips in the middle of the climatic fight scene. Kino has provided us both the US version at 85 minutes and the 94 minute international cut.

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Video – 1.85:1
Kino presents the regular 85 minutes version and a 94 minute International Cut.  The elements show some wear with emotional scratches showing up on occasion, Those are the scratches on the film side of the print that tend to look green. Colors are fine and detail is up to snuff. While this is nowhere near reference quality or any kind of first class restoration it certainly does enough justice to the film to make for an enjoyable viewing.

Audio – DTS HD 2.0 with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. There are cheesy sound effects and even cheesier music to enjoy. If you find that something you remembered is missing try the other cut.

Extras – Interview with Star Kurt McKinney / Commentary by screenwriter Keith W. Strandberg / Trailers

Kurt McKinney comes off very likeable in a solid interview. We learn about his martial arts background in Tae Kwon Do and how he got the role. He has strong recollections of the shoot and a funny Van Damme story to share. Don’t miss this fun and informative interview.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good (more if this is your sweet spot)

One Million Years BC (1966) Blu-Ray Review

February 11th, 2017

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Stars – Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick
Director – Don Chaffey

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Anytime one of Ray Harryhuasen’s film makes it to Blu-Ray it is a cause for celebration.  Touting Ray’s animated dinosaurs and Raquel Welch in a leather bikini the film went on the become the highest grossing picture ever made by Hammer Films. This is a caveman and dinosaur picture with natural dialogue. The tribes speak a minimum of words so what carries the day is the wonderful visuals. There are many long takes of the incredible looking landscapes. Rocky vistas stretch over the desolate hardscrabble grounds. The effects crew use these colorful sulphur bombs to give the impression of volcanic dust wafting in the air. The film opens slowly. We see violent explosions of flame and molten lava under the credits. There is an elongated sequence of a sunrise.

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The film begins with a little narration and then focuses on a tribe of black bearded men and their cowering women. They fight over food. Life is tough. The strongest man rules and takes what he wants. He has a fight with one of his sons and with a few whacks of a stout staff he sends him on his way. John Richardson looks quite good here. Both Martine Beswick and Raquel Welch remark in their interviews that they were stopped in their tracks when they first saw him. Raquel says that next to her he was the real pretty one. Richardson as Tumac makes his way through the barren lands. He eventually finds the ocean. The sight blows him away. Then he sees a group of blonde women fishing and frolicking in the water. This is all too much. Suddenly he is attacked by a giant tortoise. The creature looks great. In this new transfer we can make out all kinds of detail in the skin textures etched into the body by Harryhausen. Anytime one of his models is on screen the picture is fantastic. There is a pretty lengthy battle. I’ve heard Harryhausen say that whenever he has one of his creature enter people usually go after it with a bunch of sticks and poke at it. They sure do here as well.

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Tumac is smitten with Luana the name of Raquel’s character. While all the other women have these scraggly looking one piece costumes she’s got a well crafted leather bikini. She also sports the most fantastic make up with eye shadow and eye liner never out of place. The blonde tribe is more evolved. They seem to cook better. They make better spears with sharpened rocks tied onto the ends of their staffs. While all the black haired tribe seems to do is yell and fight the blondes seem to have more fun. Tumac discovers laughter. When we have had just about enough of this another of Ray’s dinosaurs makes a welcome entrance. The scene with the Allosaurus is a terrific set piece. He’s not that much taller than the cavemen he attacks. The way Haryhausen manages the interaction is a joy to behold. The actors have to shoot the scenes pretending while looking at empty space without anything there. Ray will make a model of one of the people and switch from the real person to a model in peril with his dinosaur. It’s a great effect. The best example of this is when a huge flying pteranodon grabs Ms. Welch and carries her off into the air. That scene features a fight between two flying monsters in mid air. Watching this bit recalls the harpies flying around in Jason and the Argonauts. While comparing the social evolution of the two tribes has its merits it’s the Dino action we are in this for. At times the length between those scenes stretches out a bit too long. I will say though that while watching this new Blu Ray I found those interim portions much easier to take.

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This is a remake of a classic Hal Roach film One Million BC (1940) that stared Victor Mature and Carole Landis. Carole sported a bathing suit like outfit that while fetching enough was not the sensation that Raquel’s became. Posters were popular in the mid sixties. Comic book heroes, comedians, action stars and all kinds of counter culture types were available in these large 27 x 41 sized prints that you could tack to your wall. They were very affordable, too. The photograph taken of Raquel during the filming became a huge sensation. It was everywhere and without a doubt made her the star that she became. It had to have helped put a few more dollars in the Hammer coffers, too. The other woman in the film that had a bikini was Martine Beswick. She did a great fight scene between two Gypsy girls in the James Bond film, From Russia With Love. She gets another fight scene in this one, too. The encounter with Raquel is well choreographed. You can clearly see that the two of them are actually doing all the moves themselves. Martine does mention in her interview that her bikini was not near as well tailored as Raquel’s. This was something she made sure to negotiate for in her next Hammer film.

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It is a real treat to have this Harryhausen film in such good shape. Kino has included both the International cut and the shorter by 9 minute US version. Among the trims were some shots from the Harryhausen effects scenes. Tim Lucas in his commentary finds this completely without cause. This is why everyone came to see this film. Why would you take even a frame away from any of the work he contributed? Tim’s commentary is full of stories and generous details about the film. He has a nice relaxed delivery and apparently is drawing information from a huge trunkful of information about the film. He credits his sources at several times which is a very nice touch. The interviews with Raquel Welch and Martine Beswick are very candid and lot of fun. The best though is hearing Ray Harryhuasen himself talk about his work on the project as he shows off a few of the actual models that he used in One Million Years BC. So yes, the ridiculous dialogue of the cavemen can be over the top and there may be a bit too much of them altogether. However the dinosaurs are the main attraction and they are served up wonderfully here. Highly recommended.

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Video – 1.85:1
The cover boasts a brand new 4K restoration and once you fire up this disc it backs it up.  Both the US and International cut appear to be in terrific shape. Each version gets their own disc. Colors are strong. Black levels are nice and deep without any distortion or noise. Sure you can tell when matte work is in the background or optical effects are being used but this overall picture is outstanding. The landscapes and vistas in the exteriors all look magnificent. There is quite a bit of time between the dinosaur encounters with only the locations and bikini clad merits of Ms. Welch and Beswick on hand to fill the time so be glad the picture looks so good.

Audio – DTS HD 2.0
Not that you really want to hear it but all of that monosyllabic dialogue is easy enough to follow. The music is brash and supports the film well.

Extras – Commentary by film historian Tim Lucas | In the Valley of the Dinosaurs: Interview with Star Raquel Welch | An Interview with SFX Legend Ray Harryhausen | Interview with Actress Martine Beswick | Animated Montage of Posters and Images | Trailers.  On the inside cover there is a reproduction of a controversial publicity picture.  That’s a nice cheeky touch by Kino.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent (Classic for Ray Harryhausen fans)