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Archive for June, 2012

Barbarella (1968) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Stars: Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg , Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau
Director: Roger Vadim
Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

In 1968 graphic novels and Japanese Manga had not arrived. Marvel and DC comics, Mad Magazine and Creepy held sway with most teenagers. There were a few who read the imported French long form comic adventures of Tin-Tin that were collected in hardbound editions. The new Jane Fonda film was going to be based on the science fiction exploits of a sex crazed adventuress named Barbarella as told in the racy French comic strip of the same name. None of us here had seen this but we conjured up visions of bawdy panels as if drawn by a mind like R. Crumb. There was no telling how far this one would go. Jane’s husband Roger Vadim would direct. Occasionally pictures would leak out of Jane Fonda dressed in the most revealing and outrageous costumes. Many were disappointed that the film came out with a PG rating. We wanted the goods, but the word on the street was very strong on this. Critics may have been nonplussed but Barbarella arrived with cult hit written all over it.

The word that best describes this film comes from the same late sixties era. Camp. Camp is kinda corny but very cool. Something that is camp would be considered lame if you weren’t among the hip that knew how to look at it just right. The film starts with its famed non-gravity striptease as Barbarella sheds her bulky space suit while floating inside her spaceship. Credits swim out of her discarded helmet and gather round her naughty parts. It’s a very daring and risqué bit that is lots of fun. Her ship is decorated in deep shag run style and appointed with all kinds of gadgets. She gets an assignment to track down Duran Duran. Not the band but the guy the band got their name from. This scientist has turned rogue and taken his mysterious new weapon with him and fled to the city of  Sogo. Barbarella is baffled why anyone would even want to create a weapon. What follows is a Wizard of Oz like quest with few plot details and a lot of wild colorful fantasy like sequences.

The entire film has a very theatrical look to it. Sets are built on soundstages and decorated an op–art and mod style. The backdrops and horizons are often created with the same kind of techniques that made up the light shows at the Fillmore concert halls. Splashes of color ooze and percolate in mind-blowing patterns. Every wall, piece of furniture and set piece has a kind of Lost in Space kitchiness to it. It is obviously fake, even tacky but still charming in its psychedelic colors and attitude. The sets have the feel of a modern dance space or an elaborately presented stage show. The costumes are also pushed to the extreme. When we first meet the stunning Anita Pallenberg she’s dressed in black feathers and has a horn atop her head. She calls Barbarella Pretty, Pretty with clear Sapphic intentions. That’s the same Anita Pallenberg who was Keith Richard’s girlfriend at the time and also appeared in Performance. John Phillip Law plays a topless angel, an angel with large wings that can really fly. It’s not just the leading characters either. You’d do well to pay attention to the vast array of background performers, even the ones who simply adorn and dress the set. Almost every woman we encounter is dressed in a state of brinkmanship. One set features a giant hookah. A bevy of girls smoke from the hoses, as a man appears to slowly drown inside it. Barbarella takes a hit. She likes it. It’s the Essence of Man.

Paramount is to be complimented on presenting this film in a state where all the opulent colors and fantastic designs can really be appreciated. Seeing this on TV or in previous editions does not do it justice. This Blu-Ray edition is a big brimming box of eye candy. Jane Fonda looks gorgeous throughout. Her hair must have been professionally tousled for every shot. There is a dazzling sexiness about her performance. Once you see the title sequence you can’t take it seriously. The Bob Crewe songs smack of the establishment trying to sound hip like the kids sing today. Ernest voices carry the title song, Barbarella Psychedella. How cool would it have been if Burt Bacharach had done the soundtrack. Alas he was busy at the time scoring raindrops to fall on someone’s head. While it’s certainly of its era, it was a great era and this new Blu-Ray edition is a blast. The film is housed in a regular Blu-Ray pack that is nestled into a cardboard slipcase that features the Boris Vallejo artwork that was used in a re-release of the film. However it can be opened to reveal a gatefold representation of some of the original release artwork. That’s a nice touch as both images are terrific old school paintings.

Video –
2.40:1, 1080p. Gorgeous syrupy sweet eye candy. While some people would be satisfied with Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, visitors to this site would do well to indulge their sweet tooth with a dollop of Barbarella Blu-Ray. The publicity pictures used here do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray image.

Audio –
Dolby mono track presented in English, French and Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish as well as English SDH. All is clear and easy to follow.

Extras –
There’s a trailer.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good/Excellent

Meatballs (1979) Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Stars: Bill Murray, Ivan Reitman, Chris Makepeace, Kate Lynch
Director: Ivan Retiman
Released by Lionsgate

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Meatballs is a friendly, warmly nostalgic and enjoyable movie. The late seventies look is immediately apparent in the hairstyles and costumes. There are some funny moments to be sure, however where Meatballs really succeeds is in recalling those days and nights spent at a sleep-away summer camp. There’s a checklist of experiences and small details to cherish here. The busses line up for the long ride to the country. Parents say their embarrassingly cloying goodbyes. A ragtag group of CITs (counselors in training) go over the camp rules, which get promptly pitched into the burn barrel. When Murray’s counselor Tripper sits down at the dinner table in the noisy dining room he immediately holds his finger to his nose to signal the start of the infamous last man in clears the table competition. There are chants, people standing on chairs and bad food aplenty.

The film was intended to focus on the hi-jinks of the CITs but it was later decided that the scenes between Murray’s self confident cool counselor and Chris Makepeace’s lonely homesick camper held a special appeal that needed to be expanded. Those intimate scenes between them do feel different and they work very nicely. The one in the diner with Murray intercepting the kid’s getaway ride home on the bus features a great establishing of rapport over French fries. He compliments the kid on his gourmet taste and simply begins to look out for him. Counselor Tripper gets Rudy through the summer and grows him up a little all the while remaining the off the wall screwball that he is.

Murray’s Second City training is obvious, as he seems to float and improvise all over the script. Those years spent on stage learning how to command an audience and take hold of a scene gave him a confidence and self-assurance you can see in any one of his sequences. At one point during their annual competition with the nearby rival camp they are down in the dumps. They are depressed and badly loosing the yearly Olympiad. He becomes a manic and inspired coach who leads the defeated campers and staff in an inspiring chant of, “It just doesn’t matter”. The rhythm of the chant and the build up is almost identical to John Belushi’s infamous Toga party chant in Animal House. The wacky coach bit must have been a regular thing at Chicago’s Second City.

Bill Murray would go on to exert a real control over his comic talent but not before his role as the looney-tunes groundskeeper in Caddyshack. It’s hard to believe he became so containable as an actor. He worked with director Ivan Reitman again in Stripes and the massively successful Ghostbusters. This time out however one gets the feeling that young Murray gave the actual script as much attention as the camp rules that the CITs gleefully lit on fire and feed to the burn barrel. The songs in the film are insipid drivel except for the CIT song sung by Tripper and the counselors at the end. Meatballs succeed admirably in rekindling those summer camp memories. It’s too silly and wacky to be called nostalgic, though. The comedy is on the light side. What really drives the film is the concern and natural camaraderie between Bill Murray and Chris Makepeace. It’s a nice film.

Video -
1.78:1 1080p. The movie looks fine. Colors are natural. The forest, lake and campgrounds all look real enough. It was shot on an actual camp. Nothing pops or jumps out, however it’s not that kind of picture. Detail is good if not strong throughout.

Audio -
DTS 2.0 Surround Sound, Subtitles offered in English and Spanish, Closed-captioned

Extras -
The 2007 special edition was a huge upgrade in terms of extras compared to the earlier bare bones release. It had a commentary (which is carried over here), and also a 47 minute documentary “Summer Camp: The Making of ‘Meatballs’”(which is not).

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good

The FP Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Stars: Jason Trost, Art Hsu, Caitlyn Folley
Director: Trost Bros.
Released by Image Entertainment, Drafthouse Films

 

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Two rival street gangs, the 245s and the 248s appear to be in a turf war over the FP, Frazier Park in California. In this future Bizarro universe the gangs settle their beefs by playing a round of Dance Dance Revolution. Each player mounts their multicolored pad and the video screen in front of them flashes crazy colored patterns. You see red – you step on red. The popular arcade game is sort of like Merlin for your feet.

The Trost crew that made this film seems to like John Carpenter’s soundtracks as they’ve got his signature synth style down for the times in the film where you are not driven by the frenzied techno pulse beats that propel the rest of the picture. The look and entire feel of this movie borrows freely from Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, Warriors and maybe that South Park episode with Butters and his wicked tap dancing where everyone gets schooled in the vicious dance competitions. The settings are a mix of eighties arcade chic, hubcaps and liberal amounts of spray paint.

The dialogue is embarrassing. It feels like a young kid trying to sound all urban-tough. Almost every line contains the words, Fuck, Motherfucker, and Bitch delivered with an over-emphasized attitude and a distinct tilt of the head, yo! The hero is Jtro. You can tell it’s him since he has his name etched in flashing bling on his belt. His brother dies during a dance off with this dude with bling on his teeth and a bad Mohawk haircut. Jtro quits. His fast-talking friend gets him back. There’s a girl. There’s some training. They have the big dance-off. At one point there is a shoot out with many of the players shooting a never-ending hail of bullets from their old school revolvers, just like an old Cowboy movie.

If this had been a real arcade game instead of a movie, most people would be kicking the machine and asking for their quarters back. In old school Bally-lingo – Tilt, Game Over.

Video
2.35:1, 1080P.
The images produced by the digital cameras used to collect the action are produced faithfully.
Everything looks clean and crisp. The publicity pictures do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray Disc.

Audio
DTS HD 5.1 in English, with no subtitles offered.
The synth track sounds fine. The techno music is delivered in appropriate fashion.
The dialogue has a sharp edge to it that fits the hyper activity of the story.

Extras
Commentary with the Trost Bros.
Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished: The Making of The FP
Costume Designing The FP: Interview with Sarah Trost
Scoring in The FP: Interview with Composer George Holdcroft
The FP in The FP: A Return to Frazier Park
Two Trailers.

The main featurette’s first talking head appeared to be out of sync with the dialogue track.

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Poor

Django Kill!: Blu Ray Review

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Django Kill! (1967)

by Troy Howarth

D: Giulio Questi

S: Franco Arcalli and Giulio Questi

MP: Tomas Milian, Marilu Tolo, Patrizia Valturri, Milo Quesada, Ray Lovelock, Pierro Lulli, Roberto Camardiel

A Mexican bandit (Tomas Milian) runs afoul of a gang of homosexual psychopaths when he stumbles into a bizarre border town…

In the lexicon of popular film criticism, no term is perhaps so overused – and frequently misapplied – as “pretentious.” In general, films cited as being pretentious have committed no error other than being misunderstood by the critic who has elected to label it as such. On occasion, however, there are instances of filmmakers attempting to “elevate” popular genres in such a way that can truly be called pretentious – and in the humble estimation of this particular reviewer, Django Kill! Is one such example.

In an interview present on the Blue Underground release, lead actor Tomas Milian (Face to Face, Don’t Torture a Duckling) confesses that he nearly didn’t do this film because co-writer/director Giulio Questi had a reputation for being an intellectual filmmaker – and when it comes to westerns, intellect comes in a distant second behind being able to direct action. While one might argue with Milian on this point, it seems that his misgivings were correct – Questi clearly has his eye set on something other than action, and despite all the mayhem and gunfights on display, he seems uncomfortable dealing with such mundane trivialities as chase scenes and shoot outs. Whether Questi was successful in doing something interesting with western conventions is, of course, a subjective call – and certainly many view Django Kill! As one of the best, most interesting Spaghetti Westerns ever made, which indicates that for many, he was indeed successful in his aim. Alas, I found the entire enterprise to be sluggishly paced, indifferently staged and frequently tedious. Questi amps up the blood and gore, tosses in plenty of bizarre elements (the homosexual gang, for example), and uses Milian as something of a not-so-subtle Christ stand-in, but it really does beg the question: does overloading a film with outre and bizarre elements really make it accomplished?

Milian, a charismatic and likable performer, does what he can with his lead role – which, despite the slavish title (which, in fairness, was saddled on the film without Questi’s consent – he preferred the title If You Live, Shoot!, which is still utilized on screen as a subtitle), has no ties to Franco Nero’s iconic characterization in Sergio Corbucci’s more conventional but infinitely more satisfying Django (1966). Milian is capable in the role, but there’s very little for him to sink his teeth into. The actor fared better when allowed to improvise and fit out his characters with endearing quirks, as evidenced in his collaborations with Corbucci on such titles as The Mercenary (1968) and Companeros (1970), for example. This particular assignment finds him in a subdued mood, frequently reacting rather than being allowed to drive the action forward himself. The supporting cast includes an early appearance by Euro Cult favorite Ray Lovelock, here cast as an unfortunate pretty boy type who runs afoul of the black clad gang of psychos. Marilu Tolo (Argento’s The Five Days, 1973), Milo Quesada (Franco’s The Bloody Judge, 1969) and Piero Lulli (Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill!, 1966) are also on hand to lend an air of cozy familiarity, but everybody is hamstrung by Questi’s insistence on striving for weirdness for weirdness sake. The characters are seldom richly detailed in Spaghetti Westerns, it’s true, but here they feel like mere props in the director’s surrealistic vision.

Production values are credible enough, with Ivan Vandor contributing an effective score and the various gore effects still holding up fairly well, but much of the impact is undercut by Questi’s bizarre directorial choices. For example, the scene which introduces Tolo, belting out a song more appropriate for a night club scene in a smoky noir, is embarrassing. The dubbing of the song is ridiculously out of synch, and the acoustics are all wrong – sure, it may be seen as a kitsch touch, or a dab of self-knowing surrealism, but it merely serves to undercut the entrance of a major character… and the scene drags on interminably, to boot. Similarly, the various shoot outs are staged in a most uninspired manner, though editor Franco Arcalli (who cowrote the script with Questi) does his best to punch things up with some then-radical editing techniques.

Ultimately, Django Kill! Remains a divisive title in the Spaghetti Western canon for good reason. It’s much too quirky and strange to appeal to a mass audience, and even SW enthusiasts are likely to have a problem with its refusal to hew to convention. It has attracted a strong cult following, but for this reviewer it remains little more than a curio; among the more violent and sadistic films of its ilk, however, I would personally take Cut Throats Nine (1970) any day of the week.

Video:

Blue Underground’s upgrade of Django Kill! To blue ray may well be explained by the upcoming release of Quentin Tarantino’s heavily touted ‘souther’ Django Unchained. In any event, they have done a credible job with the film, improving on their previous DVD incarnation. The 2.35/16×9/1080p transfer looks about as good as the source materials will allow. DNR appears to have been utilized, but not to the excessive degree evident on the high def releases of some Italian genre titles. Some grain is evident, and if the image isn’t as sharp as one would like, one must bear in mind the limitations of the Techniscope format. Colors appear to be accurately rendered, and the print is in very good shape overall. The film is fully uncut.

Audio:

Audio options include the Italian and English dubs, both in DTS-HD mono. The Italian track is far less hokey than the English, but both tracks suffer from limitations in the original recording. Vandor’s score comes across pretty well, however, and those canned gun shots have a nice ring to them. Removable English subtitles are included for the Italian track, and English SHD subtitles are also included.

Extras:
Extras are the same as on the old DVD edition – a featurette, a trailer, and a poster/still gallery. The featurette is the most substantial extra, of course, and it features some interesting insights from Questi, Milian and Lovelock.

Overall:

Django Kill! Remains one of the weirdest Spaghetti Westerns ever produced, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Film: ** out of *****

Video: ***½ out of *****

Audio: *** out of *****

Extras: ***½ out of *****