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Archive for March, 2012

Lady for a Day (1933) Blu-Ray Review

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Lady for a Day (1933) Blu-Ray
Stars: Warren William, May Robson, Guy Kibbee, Glenda Farrell,
Nat Pendleton, Ned Sparks, Walter Connolly
Director: Frank Capra
Released by –Inception Media Group

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Frank Capra is known as the director who made It’s A Wonderful Night, Meet John Doe, Mister Deeds Goes To Town and all those other films that get tossed together and labeled as Capra Corn. Sure he’s got a sentimental streak a mile wide and maybe his films are a bit on the schmaltzy side. But it’s good schmaltz and they are very well made. Prior to this film Capra made a very funny film Platinum blonde (1931) with Jean Harlow and Robert Williams. Williams had tremendous appeal and a wonderful comic ability but never went on to big recognition. Four days after the premiere of Platinum Blonde, Williams died of a ruptured appendix at the age of 37. That film showed Capra had a sure hand for comedy but Lady For A Day is the film that shows him discovering his style. You can see his love of people combining with that great comic sense. He’s learning how to mix the laughs and the pathos.

This film is based on a story by Daymon Runyon who made a career telling stories about colorful street types and gangsters who really have a heart under all that swagger. Popular screenwriter Robert Riskin adapted and put his stamp on it with lots of memorable dialogue. The story was good enough that Capra remade it as Pocketful of Miracles in 1961. That’s likely how his estate wound up the with an original 35mm print that was the source for a new negative claimed for this presentation. May Robson plays Apple Annie. She sells apples on the streets of New York. Her friends are a collection of panhandlers and street hustlers. She’s been writing her daughter in Europe from stationary stolen from a swank hotel pretending she lives in high society. When the daughter gets engaged she plans a trip to the city with her finance and his father, The Count. Uh-oh! Dave The Dude, the big time gambler who buys apples from Annie for luck comes up with the idea to dress her up and surround her with all their friends pretending to be the toast of the town. It’s a very elaborate ruse with lots of close calls and funny bits. Reporters are even kidnapped when they start to catch on.

May Robson plays Apple Annie totally straight, very dramatic. The supporting cast really carries this film wonderfully with a rogues gallery of character actors the likes of which we don’t see anymore. These actors specialized in smaller roles and honed their skills to such a fine point working in a surprisingly large number of films. So many are recognizable not only by their faces, but by the quality of their voices and their mannerisms. They brought a very recognizable signature to every role. Back then good character actors would be under a lengthy studio contract and turn out maybe dozens of roles. You simply don’t see that anymore. Just look at the characters these guys played in this film – Harry The Horse, Shakespeare, Louie The Lug, Missouri, The Judge, Happy McGuire, Cheesecake, The Weasel, Butch, and The Greek. To see a whole collection like this was not uncommon in thirties films. They all crackled with an energy bringing an enthusiasm and spark to any scenes they were in. The humor and humanness in their roles is what allows Mary Robson’s straight dramatic portrayal of Annie to work so well. It’s a magnificent counterpoint.

We learn in the introduction that Capra really wanted one of those new Oscars they were handing out. It’d mean prestige and give his career a very helpful boost. Lady For A day pulled in four Academy Award nominations and no wins. The next year his film, It Happened One Night swept the field. The two stars in the film were constantly backed by another amazing ensemble many of whom worked with Capra time and time again. These films play on hope and they tug at your heart. Frank Capra had created his own sub-genre of feel-good films. Lady For A Day is a chance to see that mix of story, rogue characters, humor and humanity come together for the first time. It is a very charming film that’ll draw you right in. To believe that a bunch of hustlers, gangsters and mugs would take all that time and effort to help an old lady out when the chips are down is a tall tale. As the country was struggling its way out of the great depression stories like these were very popular and Capra captured that zeitgeist brilliantly. See this one if you haven’t, it’ll do your heart good. And if you know it, this is a real treat to behold.

Video – 1080p, 1.33:1,
Easily one of the best restorations to come along. Gone are the faded washed out scenes replaced by bright and detailed frames. Black levels are rich and distinct. This work really shows off the production design in the film. There is a garden scene with a large carved glass waterfall. You can make out the flowers that were etched into the glass. At the beginning we look through the glass to see the two lovebirds kissing as the water cascades down the glass. The scene ends shot from the other side with Apple Annie holding her daughter with the waterfall behind them. Mom reassures her daughter that everything will be fine cradling her head against her chest. It’s a gorgeous sequence. This new transfer does that sequence justice and many others, too. Everything is easy to watch and much of it has that deco style, and those swank outfits that make this story sparkle. The publicity stills do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray.

Audio – LPCM 2.0 mono offered in English. No subtitles are included.
Credit should be given to the lower range in the track. Whenever Happy talks we can easily hear his voice in all its bass glory. That extended range gives the dialogue a bit fuller, more natural sound. It’s still an early thirties track and has that era’s characteristics but there is a discernable improvement.

Extras –
The introduction by Frank Capra, Jr and his commentary are ported over from the 2001 Image DVD. Restoration Before and After – We see the original on the left and the restoration on the right with a line between them. The difference is truly amazing. The team at Advanced Digital Service deserves some major kudos here for the great work they have done. Dirt, scratches and that faded washed out look have been practically abolished from the film. It would have been nice to hear from some of them talking about the techniques used in the process.
Still Gallery – publicity stills including a great shot of the cast sitting atop of wall and toasting the camera. There’s some fun ones of Capra in there, too.  Inserted into the case is a booklet with an essay written by Scott Eyman that features some glossy stills and an ad from the film’s opening.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic

Camel Spiders Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Camel Spiders (2012) Blu-Ray
Director: Jim Wynorski
Executive Producer: Roger Corman
Stars: Brian Krause, C. Thomas Howell, Melissa Brasselle, Diana Terranova
Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This starts out as a pretty enjoyable outing for the at home monster movie fan. There’s a brief scene in the Mid East where US troops get a helping hand in a firefight from a horde of camel spiders that take out the enemy. Assigned to escort a fallen soldier’s casket back home to Arizona the captain and his sergeant are unaware that one of the little buggers has crept inside the body. Once stateside, their truck crashes on the road setting the deadly cargo free and the invasion is on. The bulk of the cast is holed up in a roadside diner. It’s a typical horror movie cross section of people but it works fine. We get the instant stereotypes: divorcing couple with the cute kid, sarcastic snotty college boys and all the regulars They make a run to the industrial facility that’s owned by the two scheming businessmen who were trying to swindle the diner out from under the husband and wife short order cooks. There’s a group of horny teens stranded in a desolate house that arm themselves with knives and a toilet lid. Brian Krause (Charmed) plays the military captain in charge with a bit of that laid back Michael Parks style. The few quips he’s given in the script get a good delivery. Grown up C. Thomas Howell of ET and The Outsiders fame turns in a very nice performance as the grizzled Sheriff in town. He plays it very relaxed and blends well with Brian Krause in their scenes together.

Now we’re ready for some low budget critters on the rampage. Go get ‘em camel spiders! What takes the film down a bunch of notches is the handling of the camel spiders themselves. That’s tough to get around, as they are the real stars of the movie. We see enough of them and the attacks are well staged with good regularity. The CGI rendering of the creature is bad. They never seem to be actually in the same film as the actors at all. Their design is pretty good. We get little ones and the more adult sized ones. Unfortunately whenever they move they appear to hover above the ground rather than on it. There’s a nice skitteling sound and some spider screeches to accompany them but it doesn’t help. During the attacks the rifles’ muzzle flashes look like they are pasted on the end of the weapons but they don’t match at all. The blood that spurts up whenever the spiders pounce gushes up like some cute new smiley you can add to your emails.

Part of the charm and what most of us love about these grade B movies is the way they get around the low budgets. Good old American ingenuity and enthusiasm is what drove so many of the great Corman films at new World. What’s really missing here is the guy with the fake Piranha head taped to the end of a stick going “boogie, boogie” underwater. We don’t need more realistic effects. We need more fun. That sense of giddy gaffer tape inspired creativity is what is sorely missing here.

1080p,1.78 : 1. The digital camera gives everything a nice sheen. Some of the compositions have a flat look to them and depth of field is not exploited very often, but overall this looks as good as anything you’d see on the SyFy Channel.

Dolby true HD5.1 with subtitles offered in Spanish and SDH. All dialogue is clear and understandable. The soundscape sounds just like regular television with the rare
directional effect.

Extras: None.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Fair

The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1985) Blu-Ray Review

Friday, March 16th, 2012

The Hills Have Eyes Part 2  (1985) Blu-Ray
Stars: Michael Berryman, Penny Johnson, Tamara Stafford, Kevin Spirtas, John Bloom III
Director: Wes Craven.
Released by – Horizon Movies from Kino, March 2012

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Just so you don’t loose your place there was The Hills Have Eyes made in 1977, then the sequel The Hill Have Eyes Part 2, in 1985. The original was remade in 2006 as the The Hills Have Eyes followed by the other sequel The Hill have Eyes Two in 2007. Wes Craven has been involved in all of them directing the first two and producing the later ones. What we’ve got here is the original sequel, if one can actually say that.

Wes Craven started out very strong with two controversial and shocking films, The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hill Have Eyes (1977). Deadly Blessing (1981) and Swamp Thing (1982) caught some attention but it was Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) that really made people sit up and pay attention. Why did this marginal film follow that clever and creative one? Some films are well crafted, some approach the very well made and some pay the rent. This one presumably helped get him through the lean years until 1996 when his mojo apparently returned fully intact and he made an even greater impact with Scream.

This sequel begins with a group of rough and ready motorcycle competitors and their friends
heading off into the very desert that was the scene of the attack on the vacationing family in the original. We see Bobby, one of the survivors wisely telling his doctor that he will not join his buddies on this particular outing. The rest of the crew piles into a school bus looking and behaving like the cast of an eighties sitcom. Among them is a very bright and peppy Penny Johnson who would go on to play President Palmer’s wife in the popular TV series, 24. The young feral girl who saved the baby in the first one is back only now they call her Rachel instead of Ruby. And Beast the German Shepard dog is back, too.

After about a half hour set up and some motocross talk, the remaining savages from the first film attack these folks in the desert. One of the biggest problems with this film is that the threat of those lurking killer radiation-damaged cannibals is completely deflated in their first appearance. Michael Berryman returning as Pluto the bald-headed icon of the series suddenly crashes into the barn where Rachel is. She basically kicks his ass and tosses him down to the lower level. That’s little sister beating up her big brother who is armed with a huge Rambo style knife. The next time we see these savages is when the two-man army rides motorcycles with the kids in broad daylight. All the lurking in the night and creepy crawling suspense is gone. Some killings follow with the requisite bloodshed but it’s all kind of a let down.

The film is also padded out with lots of flashbacks from the first movie. If you’ve read anything about this film they always mention that even the poor dog has a flashback sequence. It’s true Poor Beast with that nice Rin-Tin-Tin kerchief ambles into the school bus, looks out the window and sure enough the camera begins to zoom in. Things go all woozy and they we get the classic dog flashback sequence. Even the dog was looking back to the first film for anything to help this one along. He remembers pushing Mercury off a small mountain cliff to his death. Ah the good old days… Then back to the rest of the film.

Video – 1080P, 1.66:1 There are slight vertical lines on either side of the film in effect pillar-boxing it into what feels very much like the correct aspect ratio. Much of this is on the murky side with a lot of interior and nighttime activity. Even the daylight exteriors do not yield much detail and remain on the soft side. Colors are not very distinct. There is plenty of grain. The HD format does not do the original film any favors.

Audio – 2.0 stereo English. You can hear all the dialogue fine. The menu only offers play, chapters and extras.

Extras – There is a gallery of stills and trailers for Jean Rollin films that look very enticing.

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

Blu-Ray – Fair

Movie – Poor

Scarlet Street Blu-Ray Review

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Scarlet Street (1945) Blu-Ray
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea
Director: Fritz Lang.
Released by – Kino Lorber Classics, February 2012

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

There are several different types of Film Noir. Some rose out of the hard-boiled detective tough guy styles so prevalent in the pulp magazines of the nineteen forties. There are Noirs that revolve around a crime, a scheme or a heist. Many noirs are driven by dark characters. Scarlet Street belongs to that style that centers around a very dangerous femme fatale. The wrong guy meets the wrong woman and from that moment on his life becomes a downward spiral into a living Hell from which there is no return. Edgar G. Ulmer’s poverty row gem Detour is a classic of this type. However there are few films in the Noir canon that can match the depths of utter despair that Joan Bennett drives Edward G Robinson to in this picture. Director Fritz Lang mans an unrelenting throttle that pushes his characters further and further until the very gates of Hell would look like a good detour on the road he has made for them.

Fritz Lang is best known for the films he made in Germany just before escaping the scourge of the Nazis in WWII. He has told a frightening tale of being called to meet with Goebbels on the eve of the day he was planning to make good his escape. They liked Metropolis, of course M would have to be banned, but they had plans for him. Lang fled that night leaving behind his money and possessions. The tale may be embellished but it’s still a good one. He settled in America eventually becoming a citizen. It’s no wonder that the kinds of films he made centered on distrust, loyalties tested and moralities gone askew. Lang and Film Noir were seemingly made for each other. His first film made in the US, Fury (1936) with Spencer Tracy dealt with a lynch mob. But it was the look and feel of his earlier movie, M with Peter Lorre that permeated his best work. Lang worked with the same cameraman and three actors in films made practically back to back.

Cinematographer, Milton Krasner had shot The Ghost of Frankenstein and even worked with Abbott and Costello before joining the crew for The Woman in the Window. Edward G. Robinson famous for his gangsters would play a milk toast professor. Dan Duryea who played any number of bad guys in Noirs and Westerns teamed up with Joan Bennett to snare poor Mr. Robinson. Joan Bennett was a real looker, sultry and dangerous. Just to give you a sense of how dangerous  her husband a Hollywood producer, whose credits included Scarlet Street, gunned down her agent suspecting them of having an affair. She denied it and years later gained a renewed following in the hit TV vampire show, Dark Shadows. One of her last films was Dario Argento’s Suspiria. But back in the mid forties she could as they say stop traffic with a flip of her long hair. The Woman in the Window ends with a tour de force practical camera shot of Robinson in a chair that should have made more people take notice, but it is so good most won’t even spot it.

These folks came back together for Scarlet Street and this time made one of the greatest Film Noirs of all time. Robinson plays Christopher Cross a low level cashier who has just been given a gold watch for years and years of service. At the party the guys lean out the window to watch the boss, an old guy, get into a fancy car with a very leggy and younger blonde. Chris muses to a friend what the attention of a younger woman must feel like. On the way home through the marvelous studio back lot streets he come to the aide of a women being attacked. Joan Bennett is a vision all wrapped up in a clear raincoat that shows her off but keeps her in the look, don’t touch realm. He drives the ruffian off and takes her for a cup of coffee. She orders booze instead and when he brags that he is a painter she assumes he is a big deal artist whose work sells for big bucks in the galleries uptown. As she gets him to open up we can see the wheels turning. Later her pimp, Johnny played with an excess of style and cool by Dan Duryea gets the idea that she can manipulate him into setting her up in a nice Greenwich Village pad. Back at home he is ridiculed by his shrewish wife. She berates and belittles him, complaining he doesn’t even make enough to buy her a radio, then runs downstairs to listen to “The Happy Household” with a neighbor. In a pathetic scene he dons an apron to wash the dishes quickly so he can steal a few minutes away in the bathroom. There in the tiny space he sets up his easel and balances a flower Kitty gave him on the edge of the sink. It’s the only pleasure in his life, till he met her. Your heart goes out to him but you can practically see the fish hook sticking out of his mouth.

Kitty reels him in and plays him on the line like an expert. He tells her,” Every painting is a love affair”. She counters, “Rent me a studio then you can paint my portrait.” Johnny even steals the guy’s paintings and uses them as his entrée into the high class uptown art world. He’s got a critic and gallery owner eating out of the palm of his hand, especially when he introduces them to the artist, the shy and glamorous, Kitty. Chris’ paintings become a hit with her name on them. He doesn’t mind, just as long as he has her. In the ultimate betrayal she passes off the one he painted of her as a self-portrait.

Johnny and Kitty are quite a pair. They are true forties hipsters. He calls her lazy Legs. They have a bohemian lingo, always saying, for cat’s sake and calling being drunk being so tight. He clearly abuses her and she seems to go for it in a masochistic way. The dialogue is rich with a mix of their language and Noir-style. Johnny remarks to Kitty about Chris, “You got him eating right out of your hand.” She replies, “And he won’t stop at lunch.” In one of the film’s classic scenes, Chris kneels on the floor and paints her toenails. Things start to take a much darker turn. The stakes get higher and Chris resorts to stealing from his wife and work. The escalation ratchets ever upward, the string stretching to the breaking point. Chris doesn’t like Johnny and when his ultra hip straw hat keeps turning up in the wrong place at the wrong time Chris begins to get suspicious. At a time in films where the guilty always seems to get punished, we have a very strange turn of events. Someone gets away with murder, they let someone else take the rap and event fry in the chair for it. You just didn’t see stuff like that back then. But then justice begins to eat this person alive from the inside out and the last several scenes of this film become some of the bleakest darkest stuff in any noir.

The acting of the leads is letter perfect. The costuming is on the mark, especially Johnny’s outlandish outfits. For a film shot on studio back lots, Scarlet Street has a terrific look to it. The fake Greenwich Village Streets look like such a groovy artist colony, even then. Kitty’s artist pad has large walls covered in art, some drawn right on the wall. There are huge windows that let in cascades of light that bathe her in an adorning fashion no matter where she is. Fritz Lang brings a lot of style and class to this tawdry tale. He makes it seductive and darkly fatalistic at the same time. What may seem like a simple melodrama becomes a very twisted tale of a man who has a hellhound by the tail. Everyone can see it dragging him deeper and deeper, down further and further, but the poor schmuck just can’t let go.

Video – 1080P 1.33:1, Black and White
Back in 2005 Kino produced a standard DVD that rescued this film from Public Domain Hell.
Previous editions were washed out and faded with a blurry resolution. This new Blu-Ray edition appears to have used the same 35mm elements that were provided by The Library of Congress. Whether intentional or not the protocol seems to be very much hands off. This is the best source they found and it’s been reproduced without any dreaded overuse of DNR or tinkering of any sort. What’s good is now great. The HD process brings out a lot of detail. The classic Noir style photography looks splendid. The black and white color scale is truly enhanced. Facial expressions are fantastic. The old school style “beauty shots” of Joan Bennett’s seductive poses are lush and smooth as silk. However this print has not been cleaned up that well. There are dirt specks, thin scratches, and the occasional changeover dot can be spotted. Every so often there is a haze that blemishes the edge of the screen. Watching Scarlet Street now feels like sitting back in one of those old revival movie theaters in New York City. They scoured every source and what we’ve got is the best print in town. It looks like a damn good print. It ain’t perfect but you’ve never seen it better. This new Blu-Ray is a clear upgrade from the standard DVD and well worth it to those that really know and love this film. The publicity pictures do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray image.

Audio – Mono
The moody orchestrations sound great. Without a doubt there is some low level hiss, but it is a distinctly more solid presence than it was before. Dialogue feels about the same.

Extras -
The commentary by David Kalat is carried over from the standard DVD. The stills gallery is different in that the previous edition contained some text explanations of a pair of deleted shots. It really would have been nice to see a good conversation about this one with some entertaining and knowledgeable folks.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic