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Archive for February, 2012

Hugo Blu-Ray, DVD Review

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Hugo (2011)
Stars – Asa Butterfield , Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director – Martin Scorsese
Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Martin Scorsese has been quoted as saying that he wanted to make a film that his twelve year old daughter could see. He’s done that but also made one for the twelve year still inside him. He has combined that marvelous adventurous time of growing up with a bittersweet adult ability to look far back. Imagine though if when you looked back part of what made those times so special was gone, or fading away.

These themes weave in and out of a delightful tale that first appeared as a book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Sleznick. Was he related to that Selznick? Indeed he was. Mr. Selznick’s grandfather was a cousin of the legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, How fitting is that! If you pick that book up you’ll see that almost the first thirty or so pages are filled with a series of very detailed pencil like drawings before you get to any real text at all. The whole book is interspersed with drawings like the kind that kids with a lot of imagination and talent used to fill their school notebooks with. It’s no wonder that this connected so well with a total film lover like Scorsese who fell in love with movies at about that same age.

The story is set in Paris, of the twenties, in a bustling train station. The camera rushes through the crowds very much at a child’s eye level and up into the high ceiling, climbing higher until we meet an eye looking back at us from inside the numeral four of a gigantic clock. This is where Hugo lives. Without any parents he spends his days keeping this vast array of clocks in the station set and ticking away from inside a winding catwalk in a hidden world. He’s got a book of drawings his father left him and a strange mechanical man that is poised to write a message if only Hugo’s wonderful tinkering talents can bring him back to life again. It’s a puzzle that needs a key. The key is later found to be dangling around the neck of a bookish young girl he meets. Like a good story that key serves to unlock an adventure that travels in many directions. Isabelle’s overprotective godfather turns out to be George Melies another tinkerer like Hugo, only this man made a series of delicious fantasy movies that once enthralled much of the world. Now those films are gone, faded into antiquity and memories leaving only a bitter man who refuses have his heart and soul unlocked again.

The train station looks like a small city with shops and cafes. People buy flowers, rush to meet trains, sip espresso clustered around small tables and listen to a lively jazz band led by gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Scorsese has populated this very sunny village with little dramas and romances. The stationmaster played by Sacha Baron Cohen is always on the prowl for trouble making kids. He’s got a wobbly mechanical brace for one leg and a vicious Doberman tugging at the leash in one hand. He fancies the flower girl but can’t seem to smile at her. The owner of the café is wooed by an elderly man with a scarf played wonderfully by British character actor Richard Griffiths who is constantly being attacked by her Dachshund dog. Everyone just needs a little fixing to be able to fit in. It makes a terrific backdrop. When Hugo and his new friend are on the run there the camera always whooshes in between all the adult legs and suitcases. These are the kind of shots that Scorsese is known for. Yet amidst all the fine photography and digital scenery it’s great to see a real mechanical man and some truly impressive practical miniature effects, too.

The station toy shop owner who is really the filmmaker George Melies is played with a nice physicality by Ben Kingsly. He looms over the young Hugo with his anger yet is mostly seen hunched in lonely despair. As we learn his background the early years of motion pictures come to life. Scorsese said, “ I didn’t realize there are generations who do not know about the origins of film. I love the fact young people may learn about this” Concurrent with this is the librarian played by Christopher Lee. When we meet him he is foreboding, the keeper of all that is written. His library is filled with stacks and stacks of books. He looks down at us from a towering desk, yet has a fondness for Isabelle and has been aiding her to discover the worlds those books offer. She even speaks with a vocabulary that shows she has spent much more time reading than having actual conversations with people. One can’t help but notice that while Melies’  films are gone, save for one that is held dear and precious by the writer of a book about him, Lee is always seen giving these books away. At one point Hugo bumps into him in the station and notices a copy of Robin Hood has fallen out of his hands. The librarian says I had intended this as a gift for my godson but now I think it is intended for you. He gives it to him. It is a marvelously played scene. There is much to treasure and share about art. Some critics have complained that Scorsese’s personal campaign for film preservation is too heavy handed a message in this film. To this reviewer it is as perfect a fit as that heart shaped key is for the mechanical man.

Seeing Hugo on the big screen in 3-D one was struck by how well the 3-D process was integrated into the production design rather than sticking out like a series of gimmicks. Depth of field was a veritable playground that the actors moved through. The vertical scale also became very much alive with Hugo climbing up, down and around the clockwork mazes, scurrying up ladders and sliding down chutes. While some of that deep depth does not translate, the perspective lines are still there and the very careful compositions still draw you head long into the frame. Watching Hugo on Blu-Ray the backgrounds are more easily appreciated without things swirling around so much. There is so much intricate detail there that the more intimate home viewing experience is a very rewarding one.

At the very end of the film, there is a kind of epilogue scene set at a party that gives us a tour of all the film’s characters. It feels very satisfyingly old school to see all the loose ends so neatly tied up.

Video -
Blu-Ray 1080p 1.85:1. This Blu-Ray is simply a stunning example of how good this format can look. This easily qualifies as reference quality. Scorsese who is so adept with all kinds of film stock, a man who practically bleeds celluloid when you cut him, has embraced much of the new digital medium. There is intricate detail in the clock mechanisms, the sumptuous production design and color scheme’s blue and gold hues look to be perfectly realized. The Standard DVD, enhanced for 16X9 more than holds its own here too. While the Blu-Ray is the recommended choice, if that’s what you have to look at, it is still a marvelous picture. The first two screen caps are publicity stills that do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray, the others were taken directly from the DVD.

Audio –
The Blu-Ray sports a thoroughly enveloping DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 as the default. Dolby 5.1 tracks in French, Spanish and Portuguese and subtitles in the same languages are offered plus an English SDH. The DVD shares all but the 7.1 track. Hugo presents a very clear and emersive track. The manipulation and directionality of the 7.1 mix is a delight to sit in the middle of. There is a good variety to be distinguished in the sounds of the various clocks. During a chase scene, the sound of the Doberman’s toenails clicking on the metal stair steps is a nice touch. The lovely period French style soundtrack is driven by its accordion and Django Reinhardt inspired guitar runs. One can find lots of separation in the track so you can pick out each piece distinctly.

Extras -
“Shoot the Moon” (The Making of Hugo), “The Cinemagician, Georges Méliès”
“The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo”, “Big Effects, Small Scale”,
“Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime”
The pieces on the automaton and how they achieved the train wreck scene effects with large scale miniatures are fascinating. Sacha Cohen’s bit is quite funny.

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

Blu-Ray – Classic
DVD – Excellent
Movie – Classic

Killer’s Moon Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Killer’s Moon (1978) UK United Kingdom
Stars – Anthony Forrest, Tom Marshall, Hilda Braid, Joanna Good
Director – Alan Birkinshow
Released by Redemption March 13, 2012

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Starting in 1984 a list was complied of films that were deemed unfit for VHS distribution in Britain. Though these films may have played in theatres, there were sufficient rules and regulations in place to keep children from seeing these kinds of movies. As home video developed and VHS tapes became more prevalent various watchdog groups began to realize that what was unavailable in the cinema was readily available to be seen at home. Complaints mounted that steps had to be taken. The term that was most often applied to these ultra violent and depraved films was, The Video Nasties. The term stuck and in 1984 The Video Nasties Regulations Act went into force. The list was maintained and the new rules for home video were much stricter than those for public exhibition in the theaters. There was an actual list and then there was a list of films being considered. Killer’s Moon did indeed receive its certificate X back in 1978 allowing it to be screened in movie theaters. It did not however make it onto any of these lists. Over the years The Video Nasties list has become a kind of shopping list of forbidden fruit for cult movie fans. One can make the case that Killer’s Moon was one of the films that contributed to the uproar and may have been one of the multitude of straws that broke the camel’s back. All of this served to garnish the reputation of the film.  Word of mouth traveled and served to fuel a cult status based more on expectation that anything actually delivered.

The United State had its share of exploitation fare like The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on The Left. These seminal titles were followed by Don’t Go in the House, Don’t go in the Woods, Don’t go in the Basement, The House by the Lake, The House by the Cemetery, The House on the Edge of the Park, The Last House on Dead End Street and on and on until the whole sub genre petered out. While it may not have actually been true that the British Parliament stayed up at night to prevent this film’s release or that the Queen herself kept it out of the theaters, Killer’s Moon still made very much of an impression. It may have been the lurid and taboo breaking nature of the simple plot set up that caused such a knee jerk reaction.

A bus load of young school girls are traveling through the rural English countryside when their bus breaks down. They are forced to seek shelter at a very posh hotel that is not open to the public during the off season, Meanwhile four very psychotic and deranged criminals are undergoing some very special dream therapy treatment aided by LSD. They have escaped and are on the run. Just prior to the breakout they have been instructed that this is all a dream, just go with it and follow through on any urges you have. Naturally when they come upon the girls in the castle-like hotel things don’t quite go as their doctors had intended.

The initial portion of the film proceeds easily enough. There are some wonderful even pastoral views of the mountains and woods. However when we see the local authorities start to express concern over the recent escape, things ratchet up considerably when one of them attempts to see if he’s got this right. “You mean this criminal lunatic is walking around believing he is in a dream? In my dreams, I murder freely, pillage, loot and rape!” That’s a fun over the top moment and it lets us know just the kind of mayhem we are in for. How a film like this managed to wrangle such an amazing setting for the film has to be complimented. The combination of baronial castle and hotel resort is an amazing location and adds a great deal to the entire production value of the film. The setting is right up there with the one used for The Shinning. Since this movie attained its cult status many film fanatics have paid a cinematic pilgrimage to the bucolic site. A little research reveals that during WWII a girl’s school had to be evacuated to this very hotel, The Armathwaite Hall Country House (pictured below as it is today).

Director Brikinshow has seen fit to dress his bad guys in what looks like hospital gowns. The four of them are clad head to foot in long white outfits. When one of them, a bulky fellow with a moustache puts on a small bowler or derby hat the effect is to make him look like a silent comedian. He’s even got the facial expressions of an Oliver Hardy to match. Meanwhile the schoolgirls have had a round of choir practice and tea before they’ve been sent to bed. Again they are all dressed in these long matching white nightgowns. When the action starts it’s like a giant white sale gone mad. It should be stated that at no point is there any real suspense or sequences of outright terror. The events unfold one after the other. There are killings. Butcher knives and axes are used. There are rapes and yet nothing approaches the level of Last House on the Left or the more prurient and sleazy films of the genre. The almost off-handed narrative gets some dialogue help from novelist Fay Weldon, the director’s sister. She wrote the initial episode of Upstairs, Downstairs the British TV hit. This leaves one very puzzled when confronted with some of the lines here. Whether this exchange can be attributed to her or not is unknown. Following the abuse of one of the girls, her friend comforts here with these words, “Look, you were only raped, as long as you don’t tell anyone about it you’ll be alright. You pretend it never happened, I’ll pretend I never saw it and if we get out of this alive, well, maybe we’ll both live to be wives and mothers” That bizarre exchange is far more shocking than any of the actual mayhem on display here. Fans of the exploitation genre are encouraged to put a screening of this one under their belts. The reputation of the film is compelling enough to warrant that. Others may find it a little lacking.

Video -
1.85:1 anamorphic. The running time is listed at 92 minutes. This is touted as being mastered in HD from the 35mm negative, however there are changeover dots readily apparent in the upper right hand corner of the screen at the end of every reel. There is quite a bit of dust or something that gives us white dots and specks from time to time. There are some scratches. When a shot is brightly lit there is good detail to be found but much of the footage appears soft to begin with. The colors in this new Blu-Ray release are bolder to be sure but not quite of the vibrant category. The transfer appears to be very faithful to the materials that were used. Nothing has been tampered with though not a lot of clean up or restoration is apparent either. It is a thoroughly watchable experience and one that retains the grain and washed out look that the original film stock and photography delivered over thirty years ago.

Audio –
The score by Derek Warne and John Shakespeare comes off fine here. We can appreciate the nursery rhymes that they have sprinkled into the track. Dialogue is easy to hear even the obviously dubbed sections that sound different.

Extras -
Interviews with actress Joanne Good and director Alan Birkinshaw, Audio commentary by Alan Birkinshaw and Joanne Good. Original theatrical trailer, Photo gallery. There is also a plethora of Jean Rollin Trailers to wet your appetite.

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

Blu-Ray – Fair/Good

Movie – Fair/Good

Recoil Blu-Ray review

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Recoil (2012) Canada
Stars: Steve Austin, Danny Trejo, Serinda Swan
Director: Terry Miles
Released by Vivendi Entertainment 2012

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The term B movie used to refer to the second or lesser half of a double feature. They were generally cranked out at far less expense and used to bolster the entertainment value you got for coming out to the movies from the forties till sometime in the early sixties when the classic double feature died. Granted there were still great double bills like Dr. No and From Russia With Love to be found. There were lots of horror double bills and some were lucky enough to catch the classic, Spend a Day With Clint Eastwood that gave you the original Dollars Trilogy and the more recent Hang ‘em High for one bargain price. Times Square ran double bills and sometimes triples well into the seventies but the age of the classic low cost programmer seemed over for good. A case can be made that the dawn of the Made For TV Movie gave rise to the form again with lots of great titles debuting on Television in the seventies. With the advent of Cable Television and the growing number of new channels that could show racier fare there was yet another avenue for these kinds of film to walk down. However it was not until the debut of the rental VHS stores in every town and neighborhood that this kind of programming reestablished a foothold that really seemed to fit. Walking down the aisles scanning the familiar titles for a good one on a Friday or Saturday night to go along with your take-out meal became a standard experience in every community. Sooner or later you’d spot one that looked great but you had never heard of. This my friend was the dawn of the Direct to Video market. Familiar faces from old TV shows graced exciting covers. Were these as good as the ones that got released to the theaters? How come we never heard of these? Aw, come on give it a chance. Let’s rent two in case this one is bad. Good times for the store owners, the distributors and heh you got a good one, once in a while, too.

Recoil the new film with Stone Cold Steve Austin is one of these Direct to Disc films. Like a good old classic B movie, Recoil doesn’t take on more than it can handle. It only aims at what it can hit. It aims low and shoots fast. After thumping hundred of guys on TV back when the WWF was the Worldwide Wrestling Foundation and not the World Wildlife Federation, Stone Cold was the top of the game. Terry Miles’ film casts him as Ryan, the strong silent type, a man whose family has been murdered by a gang wearing clown masks. Like Mad Max he lost the thread that held him in check in an instant. He threw away his badge and now dedicates himself to hunting down the bad guys that got away. He’s after the ones that got his family but he’ll take a few others along the way as practice. Hs quest takes him to a small isolated Western like town that is run by the dreaded Circle Motorcycle gang. These guys make crystal Meth and sell tons of it by the literal truckload. Prospective new gang members are forced to load an endless supply into the trucks. They hang out in a small bar that says, Free Admission, but you have to pay to get out, above the door. There is the occasional girl but this gang doesn’t seem to have any fun at all. The FOX-TV show Sons of Anarchy has clearly been a big influence on them. The leader is Danny Trejo. He’s been is so many films. Casting agents must love this guy – he just breathers trouble. Ever since he got that terrific role in Desperado he seems to have been working consistently even starring in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. When members get out of line he meets them inside an electrified make shift boxing ring and offers to forgive them all transgressions if they’ll go just one round with him.

Austin’s Ryan books a room at the lonely motel in town. It’s run by the lonely but lovely widow played by the strikingly beautiful Serinda Swan. She’s got a loaded pistol under the desk but one look in those eyes would stop any man in his tracks cold. It’s that kind of picture. In short order Ryan has killed Trejo’s bad boy brother. This guy was a wanted pedophile that got away. He also hit on our favorite motel proprietor and slapped her around some. So when Ryan ties him to the hood of an old car and sends the explosive laden vehicle into the side of a building, the fight is on. We get that cliché slow motion shot of Ryan walking away with flames billowing out of the burning building behind him. Ever since John Woo overused that imagery with Chow Yun-Fat it’s been an action film staple. But damn if it still doesn’t look cool. You get what you expect with this film. The guys are tough. The fights and action are frequent and the cool quotient is on overload. To be sure this is not top shelf entertainment and there are flaws but you knew that. Steve Austin has a few too many times when he takes on a dozen people and seems to repel them all too easily. His arsenal mostly consists of a sledgehammer pile driver of a punch. The expected duel between him and Trejo culminates with Ryan duct taping their left hands together. That bit is an old Southern badass fight game that traditionally starts with the combatants each taking a slug out of the same bottle before commencing. This rarely seen contest fits these two beautifully and it would have been nice to see more of that set up and tradition played out here but instead we just get two big guys trading punches.

For direct to disc B movie thrills Recoil will show you a good time. Someone on the production team has a nice eye for cars, too. When we first meet Steve Austin he is driving a vintage 1968 Plymouth GTX. It’s even got that original radio with the clunky station buttons. Cool as Stone Cold is the camera lingers on that dashboard and doesn’t move out of the car till he gets it in high gear. Austin looks good here and his lines are kept to a minimum. Danny Trejo chews the scenery with joy. He’s even got a scene where they’ve tied up a guy who lost track of his brother to a boxing heavy bag. He swings helplessly as Danny pounds at him. He plays these kind of parts so well you’re willing to suspend a lot of disbelief just to hang with his gang for awhile. The cold desolate Vancouver town in Canada is a fitting setting for this man vs. motorcycle gang showdown. This feels like the kinda film that cries out for a couple of beers on the side.

Video – The 1.85:1 digital shoot looks to be very faithfully rendered here. It’s an excellent transfer. The flesh tones and some of the coloring tend to get a bit too slick for my taste but that’s down the to nature of the photography. There’s really not a thing to complain about here. The publicity screen shots do not reflect the actual Blu-Ray image.

Audio – A very serviceable mix that gets the job done. All dialogue was clear. Sound effects boomed when they should and stayed in the background as called for.

Extras – The Deleted scenes are mostly extended versions of scenes that were trimmed for timing and pace. There is a brief making of featurette that shows the good nature of the cast and crew. I’d suggest skipping the trailer at the beginning till after you’ve seen the feature.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Good