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Archive for December, 2011

Point Blank Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Point Blank (2010)
À Bout Portant (original title) France
Released by Magnolia Home Entertainment
Director: Fred Cavayé
Writers: Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans
Stars: Gilles Lellouche, Roschdy Zem, Elena Anaya and Gérard Lanvin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Point Blank wastes no time in giving us a set up that Hitchcock would have admired. A caring man with a very pregnant wife is thrust into a level of mayhem and suspense that will make your blood boil with delight. Why him? It was just his day and circumstances conspired to pick this one man and make him the eye of the storm. It’s a nice formula and French director Fred Cavaye serves it up with style and an infectious level of excitement. It you like thrillers, ones of this caliber don’t come along that often. Jump on this one.

Sam(Gilles Lellouche) is working at a hospital studying to pass an exam that will let him become a full-fledged nurse. His wife (Elena Anaya) is eight months pregnant and has been given doctor’s orders to stay at home preferably resting in bed until time for delivery. We meet a thief (Roschdy Zem) on the run literally smashing into walls and fences as he plunges down a fire escape stairway. Two cops chase him into a tunnel at a breakneck pace gaining on him until a motorcycle sends him cascading up into the air and smashing onto the ground. The cops beat it. Hmm. Later as the thief rests in his hospital bed someone comes in and severs his air hose with a knife. He begins to die and the monitoring machines alert Sam who in a moment of quick thinking saves his life. These are the players. At home Sam has a cuddling moment with his wife when suddenly they are attacked. Sam wakes to hear his wife’s pleading voice on a cell phone and is told that if he wants to see her or his unborn kid he better get that guy whose life he saved out of the hospital and bring him over pronto! That’s the set up.

 

What follows is an exciting game of who to trust peppered with an escalating series of action set pieces. Sam helps the thief escape and when an exchange for his wife turns bad at a Paris subway station the two are on the run. Sam and the thief will have to trust each other and depend on each other’s specialized skills. Sam will heal the criminal’s wounds and stitch him up. The thief will guide everyman Sam through a maze of corruption and help him get his wife back. The pace is furious. You find yourself wondering, hoping that the code of honor among thieves is real and will work in Sam’s favor. There are some very bad guys here who put much of the cast at continual risk. The action scenes are handled very well with some judiciously timed jolts. The hand-to-hand fights are very brutal. Director Cavaye said he wanted to convey the ferocity of the fights without resorting to any fancy martial arts. These are just cops and average people in a life and death situation using whatever they can. He credits the over the top acting of an actress in an audition for giving him the idea of building one fight sequence between two women around the threat that one wants to throw the other out a window. It makes for a very suspenseful and nail biting sequence. Throughout the film both Gilles Lellouche and Roschdy Zem give believable performances that keep us involved with their separate agendas, especially when they run on the same track. It never gets buddy buddy at all, yet their interdependence is plainly apparent.

Director Fed Cavaye’s earlier film Anything For Her (Pour Elle) was remade with Russell Crow and Elizabeth Banks as The Next Three Days. This guy has a real talent for writing tension filled stories of women in jeopardy and the men who love them having to risk everything to help them. It’s a great conceit. He’s got enough story construction know-how to give us, the audience, enough information to feel the suspense of a scene yet allows us the pleasure of discovering some character and plot developments as we go. France has a long tradition of crime films dating from Jean-Pierre Melville’s tributes to American Noir, Le Samurai and Le Deuxieme Souffle to Louis Malle’s debut Elevator to the Gallows which was a delicious narrative of two people willing to do anything for love. In recent years Luc Besson’s slick action driven hits have been tremendously successful. Clearly director Fred Cavaye has a working knowledge and appreciation for the genre films that have come before him. Point Blank is a terrific ride and a helluva thriller. Hopefully word of mouth builds and this one allows him to continue his obsession with women in jeopardy and the men who are thrust into hell and back to save them. I find it very apt that the translation of his film originally titled À Bout Portant in his native French comes out to Point Blank, the title of John Boorman’s hard hitting film with Lee Marvin.

Video:
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1. The Blu-Ray looks fantastic. We are treated to deep dark inky blacks and shadows to get lost in. There is a use of color to shade some scenes that though subtle comes across very well. A word should be mentioned here about cinematographer, Alain Duplantier who must have risked life and limb to get some of these steady cam shots. We are right on the heels of some of the actors as they run full speed. That has to mean this intrepid DP was lugging that camera and barreling along right behind them. Well done!  The publicity screen shots for this review do not reflect the actual quality of the Blu-Ray itself.

Audio:
The original French language is served in a nicely immersive DTS 5.1 surround track. Sound effects are played front and back, side-to-side taking nice advantage of the format. Magnolia offers us subtitles in English and Spanish. There is also an English dubbed track, though I urge you to hear the original dialogue of the actors as they try to convince each other of many things.

Extras:
There is a surprisingly good making of feature, Behind The Scenes. Director Cavaye is refreshingly candid and relaxed. We get a good feel for the tension between him and the camera crew. They always want more time to make it look better and he needs to keep on schedule. They cajole, lie and scheme in amusing asides we get to hear. They have a running joke about trying to be American in their style even though the budget is very much on the light side. The cast and crew come off as professional and very endearing. There is a trailer, too.

One a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic.

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

In The Hands Of The Fans: Raw Power Live – Blu-ray Review

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Studio: MVD Visual
Release Date: 09/27/2011
Director: Joey Carey/Luis Valdez
Cast: Iggy, The Stooges
Reviewed By: Mark Tolch

You can’t keep a good Stooge down. You can try, but it won’t happen. The usual pitfalls that bands wander into have tried to break up the Stooges, and were unsuccessful. Severe drug addiction made an attempt and managed to cause an extended break, but ultimately failed. The death of key band members will usually win out in the end, but not even that could keep the legacy of Iggy Pop and Co from rocking on into the 21st century. Indeed, with the death of influential powerhouse guitarist and founding Stooge Ron Asheton, it seemed that the surprising reunion of America’s greatest rock n’ roll band had been dealt a punishing blow from which it would not recover. But not being one to take a bitchslap from death seriously (original bassist Dave Alexander being the first, later replaced by Mike Watt), the remaining Stooges pulled a mid-game lineup change and stuck James Williamson on guitar. And surprisingly…it worked. For fans of the band, the “original lineup” was lacking in one area; their refusal to play anything from their 1973 swansong, Raw Power, until the last year before Ron’s death. Essentially re-creating the personnel roster from that era, the band ripped through Brazil, Canada and the U.S., blowing fans’ minds…and proving that The Stooges hadn’t lost any of their edge.

2010 would prove to be a banner year for The Stooges; first, with their well-deserved induction into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, and secondly, with a blistering performance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in New York, presented in Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power Live: In the Hands of the Fans. Filmed by six contest winners who submitted youtube videos documenting why they should have a chance to film the band, including one Edwin Samuelson of AVManiacs/Cinephiles fame,Raw Power Live shows the band the way these six fans want them presented; up close and personal, with warts and all. And it does get ugly as the band performs tracks from all three Stooges albums as well as the Williamson/Pop collaboration Kill City. Sweat lashes off of trashmaster Iggy as he punishes the crowd with profanity and a voice that can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck with its intensity, while rock guitar god James Williamson, despite not having played guitar for over 35 years, sends sonic shocks of pure energy into the crowd. Mike Watt and Scott Asheton hunker down on the back line and provide a steady, swampy rhythm, with Watt occasionally allowing his head to pop up out of his zone to see what’s going on. The audience gets right into the performance, shouting out lyrics with pumping fists, and security definitely looks worried as the crowd are invited onto the stage for Shake Appeal. Iggy’s tolerance during this segment should be noted as many of the intoxicated fans take their time leaving the stage afterward, and Watt’s bass takes a noticeable detuning bump in the process. All things considered, this presentation is about as good as it gets (and as somebody who has seen the Stooges in both incarnations, as close as you can get to actually seeing them live), with fast cuts between the “fans” cameras enhancing the experience. As the show winds down to the end, The Stooges break out some other tunes, such as I Got A Right and Beyond The Law. As Steve Mackay rips through some wild sax riffs to Funhouse’s 1970, it’s hard to believe that it’s actually 40 years later.

Video:

MVD’s blu-ray of Raw Power Live: In the Hands of the Fans is presented in a 1080i, 1.78:1 transfer, and it looks decent enough, given the source material. With six cameras in the theatre, some of them right down in front of the stage, the camera work is not guaranteed to be the most articulate, so a little ugliness is to be expected. Still, the transfer is good, with minimal artifacts and other issues.

Audio:

The audio tracks on this release are a bit puzzling, as you are given the option of a PCM 2.0 track, or a Dolby Digital 5.0 track. Despite its lossy format, the Dolby Digital track is 640Kbps and sounds great, with the surrounds offering some ambient crowd noise. The mix is also well done, with Pop’s vocals clear and consistent throughout, and James Williamson’s guitar punching through the mix with just the right amount of intensity. Asheton and Watt’s rhythm section pounds along nicely as well, though the bass is not as pronounced as it should be.

Extras:

MVD has been kind enough to include some pretty decent extras on this disc, the first being the Fans Interview The Stooges, which runs 44 minutes. Made up of an interview panel of the fans who won the youtube contest, the band is present here, minus Mr. Watt who may have been nursing his broken leg. Without the stage providing energy, the band is very laid back and amiable for the most part; especially Iggy, who seems to have adopted the role of Captain Klonopin, answering questions while playing with his feet. Although Iggy does seem to dominate most of the speaking parts, Williamson and Scott Asheton manage to get their opinions heard when Iggy drifts off into space or puts on a pair of slippers. No topic seems to be off-limits, and everything from the recording of Raw Power to the band’s influences and the importance of Ron Asheton and bands covering The Stooges is talked about. “The 90’s sucked without you!” exclaims contest winner Edwin Samuelson….and he’s right. It’s good to have the Stooges back.

Next up are the Fan Submission Videos that won the “In the Hands of the Fans” contest…ranging from the interesting to the downright scary. Not to point fingers, but it’s a wonder that some people were allowed in the same room as Iggy and Co, with some of the interviewers ranging from “I’ll eat your babies!” excited to downright comatose.

Iggy and Dick Manitoba Promos runs about 5 minutes and features Iggy with his Handsomeness, Mr. Dick Manitoba of the Dictators promoting the contest.

Also worth mentioning are Mike Watt’s awesome liner notes, which detail his experiences as a Stooge-For-Hire.

Overall:

If you’re a fan, you should get this into your hands. With a rad performance and some nifty extras, it makes no sense to punish your fan hands any longer; pick up Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power Live: In The Hands of the Fans.

Special Thanks To Ian Jane For Images.

Manos The Hands of Fate, Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD Review

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Manos The Hands of Fate Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1993)
Stars: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Frank Conniff, and Jim Mallon,
Released by Shout 2011 Two Disk Special Edition

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This review will ride the crest of good news that was leaked recently. It seems some individual has discovered a very rare 16mm work print of Manos the Hands of Fate. This archeological find just may enable lovers of this amazingly bad movie to be able to view it in much better quality than ever before and may even present the world with an actual Blu-Ray of this film. That concept staggers the mind. Manos was shot in 1966 entirely without sound (MOS –mid out sound) on 16mm Ektachrome reversal stock. Dialogue and music was dubbed in later. The completed film was then blown up to 35mm enhancing all the flaws and then copies and dupes were made. This rare find would get fans much closer to the actual way the film looked. The Master will be pleased. At the present time, the MST3K version is the one that most people are familiar with.

We all know the Mystery Science theater drill. Joel and his robot companions are forced to watch bad movies week in and week out on the series. They sit in the darkened theater in their space ship and make wisecracks at the screen, riffing their way through their punishment. Prior to this series Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space starring Bela Lugosi was the main contender for the title of worst movie of all time. There were challengers like Robot Monster and Rat Fink A Boo-Boo, but Wood’s classic generally hung on to the crown. For those very few in the know, Manos The Hands of Fate was shown in very shoddy 16MM prints and later on some duly dreadful VHS tapes. To have claimed to have seen this was either a cult merit badge or an experience of dubious honor. Either way those that did were few and far between. In their search for titles for the series the MST3K cast and crew would have lunch screenings from the piles of prints that the TV station had pushed into the dark corners of the building. They found this baby and were delighted. It certainly fit their model quite well. Ever since that first airing in 1993 and subsequent special MST3K showings, Manos was no longer a secret. Word was out that this might very well be the worst film ever made. The Master may have been searching for more brides but thanks to the series he got legions of fans thanks to Joel and the bots.

The get the full experience, and since the film is pretty short, we are treated to a Jim Handy training film, Hired! Part Two. It is a straight laced and serious sales management training film just ripe for this type of riffing. It seems the manger of a car dealership has not been supervising his new hires very well. He complains to his dad, while sitting on the front porch. Dad puts a washrag over his head, it was hot, and sets the boy straight. He goes back to the office, has a supercharged meeting and tells the newly hired salesman how to prospect the right way. This one had me laughing out loud many times and ranks up there with the funniest stuff they have ever done. Crow and Servo are merciless with the poor schlubs on screen. The best extra on this set is the ability to see this one and Hired! Part One back to back on disc two.

Then without any warning we are driving and driving aimlessly in a car stopping only to
let the credits tell us that the feature has begun. As Joel mentions in the Group Therapy featurette they used three sets in this film. One hotel room, outside the hotel room and some vague beach set with a campfire. I make it four if you count the interminable driving scenes. Mom, dad and their little girl, with her dog stop by a barely held together hotel and are greeted by Torgo. This guy looks like he walked in from skid row. He walks crooked and wears wrinkled slept in clothes. His voice is dubbed, not that you can see the out of focus mouth below his mangy beard anyway. He constantly refers to The Master as in The Master would not be pleased. The crew does a very good job with it keeping the jokes up at a steady pace. Still this is a  horrendously dull film. At one point while they are standing in the hotel room, Joel screams, “Do something!” It truly is that bad. When we meet the master he is wearing this huge black cape that has a large red hand with outstretched fingers on either side. He’s got a room full of brides dressed in negligees who roll around on the sand outside. They fight for at least five minutes. Crow exclaims this looks like a Ken Russell film.

During the breaks they do some nice parodies of the film on the spaceship, The Satellite of Love. When things threaten to get too dull for the bots, Joel can be heard spouting off, “What are we gonna do”,“This is a bug hunt”, and “Stay frosty”. It’s great to hear the variety of films and things these guys draw on for this show. When we see a portrait on the master, in his cape one of the bots remarks,”Tonight on Night Gallery…” There are lots of good jokes, but be warned Manos is indeed a terrible film and if there is a lull you may lose all your concentration. I had a better time with the short than the feature though many Misties (fans of the show) rank this one in their top all time five. If you like the series this is definitely one to check out! Shout has done a nice job and has even gone so far as to include the unadorned feature itself on disk two.

Two favorite random lines thrown out while they were driving again, “So when did you start collecting commemorative spoons” And after the faux flute jazz track gets to be too much, “Can we drop Tim Weisberg off now”

Video – 1.33:1. Looks like the TV show you remember but in great shape.

Audio – Sounds fine, nothing special here.

Extras -
Group Therapy – A very gentile sit down discussion with some good content.
MST Hour Wraps – from a special airing of the episode
There’s a Mini-Poster of the cover art
Manos The Hands Of Fate (original feature)
Hotel Torgo: A documentary on the making of Manos The Hands Of Fate
Jam Handy To The Rescue!: A Ballyhoo Production
Hired!: Parts 1 & 2 together – This one is well worth the look. Very funny!

One a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic

DVD – Good

Movie – Good

Horror Express: Blu Ray Review

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Horror Express (1972)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Eugenio Martin; Screenplay by Arnaud D’Usseau, Julian Halvey and Eugenio Martin; Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto De Mendoza, Julio Pena, Silvia Tortosa, Jorge Rigaud, Telly Savalas, Helga Line, Angel Del Pozo, Alice Reinhart, Jose Jaspe

Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) unearths the missing link while on an expedition in Manchuria; while transporting the specimin by train back to Europe, the creature awakens and wreaks havoc….

It may sound like utter hyperbole, but it’s straight from the heart: Horror Express is one of the more purely entertaining horror films ever made.  The story melds elements of horror, sci-fi, action, adventure and even comedy to create a heady cocktail that is distinguished by an elegant sense of style, wonderful performances, and a pace that invites comparison to a runaway freight train.

The film marks yet another collaboration between British horror icons Christopher Lee (whose first name is mystifingly misspelled as Cristopher in the titles) and Peter Cushing.  The two actors first crossed paths via such mainstream fare as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952), though they did not share any scenes in either – and indeed, Lee went unbilled in both.  It took the international success of Hammer Studios’ The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) for the two actors to become associated as a ‘team’ of sorts, and over the ensuing years they would become almost synonymous as top tier talent within the horror genre.  The two actors had contrasting personalities and acting styles – Lee being reserved, aloof, still; Cushing being more overtly warm, outgoing, busy, even fussy – and were often cast as adversaries.  Truth be told, few of the films they appeared in gave them much of an opportunity to really interact – and it would take a jaunt to Spain for them to find a vehicle, if you’ll pardon the expression, that truly gave them a chance to play off of each other.  Horror Express has therefore endeared itself to fans of the horror icons, though its pleasures are many and varied quite beyond the obvious fun they are having on screen.

Lee gives one of his best performances as the intrepid anthropologist, Professor Saxton.  Lee starts off in typical reserved/pompous mode, condescending to the other characters and wearing a fixed sneer on his face.  As the film unfolds, however, the character warms up and by the end he becomes something of a dashing action hero.  It’s a truly marvelous performance, and Lee doesn’t miss any opportunities to really strut his stuff; the actor’s fondness for the film, as mentioned in some interviews, reveals that he, too, realized that it was a good showcase.  Peter Cushing is almost as good as his rival, Dr. Wells.  Cushing plays Wells with impish charm, even showing a lecherous side that’s wonderfully surprising – his attempts at seducing a beautiful Russian spy (played by curvaceous Spanish horror starlet Helga Line) are particularly amusing, especially when Lee does his best to spoil things for him.  The two stars really get to interact here, and they create a wonderful sense of chemistry – as they move from being enemies to friends, their real life, off-screen friendship really shines through.  They are wonderfully supported by an ecclectic cast, including guest star Telly Savalas, whose scenery chewing turn as a vicious Cossack officer might have derailed the proceedings in a more somber affair, but which seems quite fitting and appropriate in context.  Savalas enters the show late in the game and helps to give the film a needed final shot of adrenaline just as things are threatening to slow down.  Alberto DeMendoza (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) steals many a scene as the fanatical Father Pujardov, clearly intended to be a thinly veiled version of Rasputin – it’s fun to see Lee interacting with the crazed DeMendoza, whose performance recalls the English actor’s own take on the infamous healer in Hammer’s Rasputin the Mad Monk (1965).  Julio Pena (Horror Rises from the Tomb) is also quite good as the cynical Inspector trying to get to the bottom of the mystery; Pena died not long after the film was finished, though he would appear in several posthumously released efforts.  Silvia Tortosa (The Lorelei’s Grasp) and Helga Lina (The Mummy’s Revenge) add sex appeal and also manage to deliver effective performances, while American actress Alice Reinhart is lots of fun as Cushing’s acid-tongued, cheroot-smoking assistant.  Jorge Rigaud (All the Colors of the Dark) is also effective as DeMendoza’s condescending patron.

Director Eugenio Martin dabbled in the genre prior to and following this picture, but Horror Express remains his most popular effort.  He handles the material with tremendous elan, emphasizing humor where necessary but not holding back from the shock effects when they arise.  The pacing is tremendous, there really isn’t an ounce of fat to be found, and the style is elegant without becoming stifling.  Production values are superb – it’s known by now that the film basically came to life because the production company wanted to get more use out of a train set already used for Martin’s Pancho Villa (which starred Telly Savalas in the title role), but settings, costumes, photography and effects are of a consistently high standard.  Special mention must also be made of the haunting Morricone-inspired score by American composer John Cacavas.  The central theme will be in your head for days.

Video:

Severin’s much-anticipated blu ray/DVD combo pack release of Horror Express has gotten a fair amount of flak on online forums.  The criticism stems from Severin’s ill conceived decision to encode the film at such a low bit rate, resulting in compression artifacting defects that will surely be more noticable on larger monitors.  The end result looks a lot better than any other version released on video to date, but it still falls short of the mark – and this is all the more disappointing when one considers that Severin really could have easily bumped up the bit rate without any difficulty.  These quibbles to one side, Horror Express still looks reasonably good, with good color and clarity of detail.  The source elements are in very good shape, though there are some instances of print damage and speckling to be found.  Interestingly, the film opens with shots of the train hurtling by – whereas every other video version opened with the sound of the train chugging along over a black screen.  This is also the first time (in any version I’ve seen) where the opening titles are easy to read – the white font against the headlight of the train was always very difficult to discern in previous editions.  The titles are in Spanish, preserving the original title Pánico en el Transiberiano, which translates as Panic on the Trans-Siberian), and allowing Alberto De Mendoza billing above the title along with Lee and Cushing.  The end titles are also preserved here, whereas most other editions concluded with Cacavas’ score over a black screen.

Audio:
Both the English and Spanish tracks are included, though neither is presented as lossless.  The English track is in decent shape – Lee, Cushing and Savalas do their own dubbing, and the other characters are very capably performed (though notice how Pena’s line, “I told you, I’m a policeman,” is dubbed by a DIFFERENT voice actor towards the end of the film).  Sound effects and music have decent presence, though don’t go in expecting anything particularly dynamic.

Extras:

Extras commence with an oncamera intro by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander.  Alexander comes off as a little too hyper and fanboy-ish, but his enthusiasm for the film is genuine and it’s always nice to hear a favorite film getting some love.  Curiously, this intro is only viewable as a standalone feature through the extras menu.  Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express allows Martin (speaking in very clear English, though he apologizes for being a  bit rusty in the language) to speak about the film and its cast.  It’s a good interview, with the director coming off as a likable and unpretentious sort.  He sings the praises of his stars and explains how the film came into being.  Notes from the Blacklist is a 30 minute interview with the late Bernard Gordon, originally conducted for another release that never saw the light of day – as such, Gordon doesn’t actually address Horror Express, Lee, Cushing, etc – but it’s still an interesting insight into a black period in American history.  Telly and Me features composer John Cacavas, whose career got its start thanks to a chance meeting with fellow Greek-American Telly Savalas; Savalas would continue to get work for Cacavas, most notably on his hit TV show, Kojak.  The most substantial extra is a 1973 audio interview with Peter Cushing, presented as a sort of running audio commentary – clocking in at over 70 minutes, it allows Cushing, as a guest as the National Film Theatre in London, to ruminate on his career, his friendship with Christopher Lee, his relationship with the love of his life, his wife Helen, and various other topics.  It’s a marvelous conversation, with Cushing living up to his reputation as something of a Saint among men.  It’s worth noting that this interview was part of a season of such interviews, which also included a talk with Christopher Lee – this interview is also available and would have made a nice alternate commentary of sorts.  Still, it’s nice that the Cushing interview is preserved, especially since, unlike Lee, he passed away before he could properly record any memories for the home video releases of his most popular films.

Overall:

A classic horror film gets a flawed but still worthy release from Severin.

Film: ***** out of *****

Blu Ray: *** out of *****