AV Maniacs formerly DVD maniacs

Archive for July, 2012

Total Recall Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin Ronny Cox
Director: Paul Verhoeven

Released by Lionsgate

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Paul Verhoeven has made a group of pictures that have come to be known as his science fiction trilogy. Robocop was the first in 1987 followed by Total Recall (1990) and finally Starship Troopers in 1997. This triptych of work also traces the evolution of special effects in movies. In his second one, Total Recall there is some marvelous miniature work done in the landscapes of Mars and other sets but even more intriguing is the model train that travels through a mountain pass. The kind of technology used to create X-rays and other medical imagery is used as passersby walk through a tunnel that reduces them to visual skeletons. If they are packing heat, the red colored weapons clearly show up. However the most eye popping (literally) is the work of Rob Bottin. He’s the very tall and talented man most well known for creating the ground breaking make up effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing and Joe Dante’s The Howling. Total Recall is full of these kinds of practical effects and they are endlessly amusing. Bottin even went on to create the cable controlled mannequin-like taxi drivers in the film. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought enough of this work to bestow a Special Achievement Academy Award for its visual effects.

The story is basically a very clever twist on the old is this a dream or reality plot device. Originally a short story by Philip K. Dick, who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the hit film, Blade Runner, the story went through many permutations before it became an Arnold Schwarzengger film. Verhoeven states in a new interview shot for this edition that his involvement gave the film a lighter tone that fit the material much better. Arnold’s character was changed from a dull accountant into a futuristic blue collar Fred Flinstone who works at a manly construction site and wields a menacing jackhammer. Arnold has nightmares of a life on Mars. To reduce this stress he submits to a vacation to be taken in his mind, only everything goes wrong. The procedure was supposed to create an amusing memory of his adventures as a secret agent who saves the world, gets the girl and has a nice time on Mars. Only Arnold finds out he used to actually work for the bad guys who run Mars and ever since he got involved with the revolution they hijacked his mind and set him up with Sharon Stone as his wife and the job at the quarry. Or maybe not.

The first half has some intrigue as we try to figure out if he is dreaming or not. However the bulk of the film is a series of chases and action set pieces that deliver an exciting thrill ride. Much of the film is brightly lit. Even the infamous bordello on Mars, home of the three breasted woman, is as bight as a shopping mall. The outside exteriors on Mars are bathed in a red shadow that looks great in this new edition. No, this one does not have the emotional depth and pathos that drove the man who was gunned down and rebuilt as Robocop. Verhoeven does not exhibit the playful satire and subversiveness that lurked underneath the youthful gung-ho soldiers battling the bugs in Starship Troopers. This may be the least of the three in his trilogy but it never pretends to be more than a fun ride. At the end you can decide whether Arnold was really married to Sharon Stone and just dreaming or if he really was this intergalactic badass that saved the world, Mars that is.

Verhoeven did Robocop just before this. Actors Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside were involved in that one, too. Sharon Stone would work with him again, gaining much notoriety for her role in Basic Instinct. This new edition is touted as the, Mind- Bending Edition. Looking the title up on Amazon there appear to be at least a dozen releases on this title on home video formats. In one of the featurettes a special effects man recalls that the director wanted Mars and everything to be red. He worried that the VHS tapes that would be made following the film’s theatrical release would be marred by the bleeding over saturated red hues, and indeed they were. The DVDs looked better and this second Blu-Ray does a wonderful job with that. This is the director-approved version. There’s a sticker right on the front that says so. The first time we see people standing on the sands of Mars overlooking the vast landscapes it looks terrific. Mars, in this format looks to be the angry red planet everyone has been referring to. While the picture quality does a very good job and leaves a good memory, there are just a few ticks.

Video 1.85:1
This one doesn’t pop like you’d expect a major studio Science fiction film to – even one from 1990. Much of it is very good indeed. Colors are rendered well. Detail is good. Skin tones and faces all look natural. Though occasionally in the darker shots the flesh tones suffer. Black levels are not as uniformly strong as they could be. There is a nice amount of grain to be found that keeps the cinematic quality of the source intact. However some scenes are just not as satisfying. Several of the sequences shot on the large set pieces built for the interiors are just not as well textured as the rest of the film. When we see Arnold walk through the mall from above and alongside him the entire look of the scene falls way short of the rest of the movie. However much of the film has a nice quality look to it. Clean, sharp and on the money. The flame explosions have a good color scale to them. As mentioned above the red hues of Mars look great and do not bleed at all. The Mind- Bending hype and director approval did set one up to expect more. While many scenes are spectacular, several fall short and that inconsistency tips the scales. The publicity pictures in this review do not reflect the Blu-Ray image quality.

Audio
5.1 HD DTS track offered in English, French and German with subtitles in English SDH, French and German. This is a nice robust track with good dialogue. The surround mostly works the front stage, left and right.

Extras

Everything form the previous Blu-Ray is ported over.
Models and Skeletons, Audio Commentary with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Director Paul Verhoeven, Imagining Total Recall, Making of, Photo Gallery, Trailer.

The two new features are a restoration comparison piece and an interview with the director. Paul Verhoeven comes across very energetic, thoroughly prepared and a delight to listen to. Hearing him talk about how he and Arnold would argue over how to pronounce a word in the script with their own individual accents was a hoot. This is a very enjoyable addition. The special effects and making of pieces are also worth a look

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

Blu-Ray – Good/Excellent

Movie – Good

The Fairy Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Stars: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy
Directors: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy
Writers: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy
Released by Kino Lorber
La Fee (original title) (France/Belgium)

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

What a captivating and enchanting motion picture. Most of the story is told visually in the kind of narrative style that was favored by silent movies. It also carries that same sense of innocence that sits right alongside the kind of bravado that Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp used to take on the world. However it’s a very modern tale. There is dialogue and the world is much as we see it today, only the two main characters seem to tip it on its side as they go about their madcap romance.

Dom rides through a horrendous rainstorm to his job as the desk clerk at a hotel. He dries off and gets ready for a meal and some quiet time. We watch him move very methodically as he makes a sandwich. Pummeling the bottom of a bottle of ketchup he fails to see the bottle cap fall in and get smothered beneath the sauce. Dom moves with such a purposeful rhythm. He sits down, balances his sandwich on a plate, and turns on the TV. We hear a horse, the beginning of a song and the doorbell interrupts him. Off goes the TV, up goes the plate and he removes himself from his seat. The same pattern repeats and this time it’s the phone. The exasperation builds like a W. C Fields routine. Finally a woman, Fiona comes in for a room, tells him she is a fairy and offers to grant him three wishes. He brushes her off and finally sits down, turns on the TV and bits into that sandwich. He then begins to choke on the bottle cap in his throat. He can’t yell for help, He’s unplugged the phone. Just when he is about done in the fairy women props him on the desk and head buts the cap out of him in a slapstick version of the Heimlich maneuver.

Dom gets two wishes: a new scooter and a limitless supply of gas for life. The infatuation between the two grows. Fiona manages to get half the town chasing her through the pretty bucolic European streets. He saves her. She saves him. Their escapades move episodically through a cast of wild characters. There’s the man who is not allowed to have a dog at the hotel so he puts the dog in a bag and checks in. The bag moves all over the place. There’s a group of three who sit in an abandoned car at the beach who want to get to another city. They help them all. In one of the funniest scenes Dom and Fiona encounter a girl’s rugby team in a crowded tavern. All of this is woven together so well and smoothly. It’s as if the three writers and directors have everything worked out so well that just a gentle tug of a string brings one character into the fray with a problem and another tug solves that problem in the most inventive and creative way.

The two stars, Dom Abel and Fiona Gordon are not athletic twenty or even thirty some-things. They are middle aged actors in their fifties, yet they move with a gracefulness that belies their age. Not only do they exhibit the kind of physicality that Buster Keaton had but they move with the kind of fluidity that assures us they have no solid bones. There is an underwater dance sequence that comes out of nowhere. It’s filled with the sort of bodily expressiveness and humor usually found in adventurous Modern Dance pieces. These two pull off the moves with ease and glide as if gravity did not apply to them. Their characters move as easily through the plot as these actors push, pull and gyrate in and out of the scenes. So much of the film is infused with the kind of sight gags that Jacques Tati would do. They’re funny but very imaginatively staged and thought out.

We never get to Dom’s third wish nor do we find out if Fiona is really a fairy or a woman that has escaped from a mental health facility. That’s apparently where she is on the loose from and where she is taken back to. Though once there her belly magically inflates and we suspect that the dances might have substituted for lovemaking. Although in this film’s world maybe that’s how fairies get pregnant. It doesn’t matter for soon enough there is a little baby accompanying these two.

There is not much to the plot. Instead we just run along with Dom on his fairy, Fiona. The narrative has that same kind of carefree attitude found in screwball comedies of the thirties or the early two reel comedies from the silent era. The Fairy does have a very slick polished and modern feel to it though. At no time does it feel dated or like a pastiche. This is simply the way these characters live in their world. The Artist another French film from 2011 was done in the exact style of the old silent films. The Fairy is not at all a silent film yet it was made by three people who very much loved those old silent comedies. Like the classic three beat rhythm in comedy this film’s creative team also comes in threes. The writing, acting and directing team of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy have created a very unique kind of film here. It’s lots of fun, romantic and decidedly wacky and eccentric. The Fairy is not like much you’ll find in the mainstream, however it comes more than highly recommended.

Video 1.85:1
The film looks bight and fresh throughout. Much of it has a storybook coloring to it. The small buildings in the town are charming. There’s good detail in the texture of the stones in the streets, but the overall look is simply nice. It’s a very nice looking film, as the subject calls for.

Audio
5.1 mix presented in original language of French. Subtitles are offered in English.

Extras
Trailer and a stills gallery

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965) Blu-ray Review

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Stars: Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Benny Hill, Flora Robson, Red Skelton, James Fox, Alberto Soldi, Robert Morley, Gert Frobe, Terry Thomas
Director: Ken Annakin
Released by Twilight Time
Available only at screenarchives.com
Limited edition of 3,000 units

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This was a big picture when it opened. Moviegoers today get inundated with the eye-popping temptations of 3-D and the tantalizing towering experience that awaits us with an IMAX presentation. All the latest cartoon characters are ready to jump off the screen and into your lap. Any number of superheroes will fly over your head and bring buildings tumbling down all around you. But back in 1965 Television was chomping at the heels of the movie business in a very threatening way. While the true blockbuster had not yet been seen, Hollywood and the big producers were trying all sorts of things to grab your attention and get your butts in their seats. Cinerama was a mammoth screen that curved around you, almost three times as big as anything you’d ever seen. How The West Was Won combined that process with a huge all-star cast in 1962. Motion Pictures thumped their chests and promised things you could never see on Television. Amidst this ballyhoo of international casts and never before seen spectacles, The Road Show was born. These films were so special you actually had to buy a reserved seat to see them. Only a few special theaters could  accommodate these elaborate exhibitions. Curtains would part in the middle and be drawn to the sides. Another set would lift from the floor to the fly space in the rafters. Then maybe a final thin gossamer cloak would lift and the massive screen would be revealed. Todd-AO was one of the processes that would flourish in this milieu.

Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines was produced in 70 MM Todd-AO, following such films as Oklahoma, Around The World in Eighty Days and Cleopatra. This kind of picture falls in with the other madcap all star comedy extravaganzas of the time such as The Great Race, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and it’s own follow up, Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies. This was one of the most successful films of its kind. The whole design seems to appeal to as many people as possible. There is romance, adventure, comedy of both the witty repartee and lowbrow slapstick varieties, and a truly breathtaking display of period flying machines. The film takes place in 1910 with a simple set up. An elite British Lord played by Robert Morley proclaims a race by air from London to Paris. He feels certain that his future son in law, James Fox (Performance) will win and let the world know that Britain rules the air.

 

There is a large purse offered for the winner and contestants bring an amazing array of early aircraft from all over the world. We are treated to a gorgeous display of fanciful airplanes from Japan, America, France, Italy, and Germany among others. The American flyer played in cowboy fashion by Stuart Whitman has his eyes on Lord Morley’s daughter. Sarah Miles plays the girl as an outspoken tomboy who just can’t wait to get up in the air. To see Ms. Miles normally associated with such heavy dramas in this role is a hoot. Purportedly she could not stand Whitman on the set but you’d never know it from their flirtatious scenes together. Strolling by the parade of aircraft and international pilots, Lord Morley pulls his daughter to his side while remarking, “The trouble with these international affairs is that they attract foreigners”.

The humor in this film is basically middle of the road variety. Red Skelton gets to portray man’s early and various attempts at aviation during the credits. Benny Hill leads a squad of fire fighters stationed at the airfield. They rush about like Keystone cops with Benny clanging a bell every time one of the planes look in peril. Terry Thomas and his butler like servant plan diabolical sabotage. Gert Frobe lampoons the Germanic style by doing everything literally by the book he holds, following it to the letter. Every nationality gets its share of good-natured ridicule.


While this is all safely amusing at the halfway point after the intermission – yes, there is an actual intermission card with music that plays while you go out to the concession stand, or your own refrigerator for snacks – the race begins and this film really takes off. The planes look spectacular. The producers brought in many collectors’ pieces, all museum quality. Bi-planes, tri-planes, monoplanes and in one sequence a series of contraptions that the Italian aviator tries out before deciding on his best one for the race. These are all real planes and they are magnificent to behold. With new engines implanted several of them do take to the air and soar just like they were intended to. Their aerial maneuvers are captured from the sky in gorgeous and startlingly clear compositions. The photography also included a device that let these planes and their pilots be lifted up to fifty feet in the air and shot against the real blue skies as they moved. The footage is breathtaking. You can just picture all the kids in the theaters back then suddenly becoming transfixed. In an age filed with CGI and such, these planes really rock!

Special attention should be paid to the clever artwork that is used for the opening, intermission and closing credits. British Artist Ronald Searle is likely best recognized for his cartoons about the St. Trinian’s School, a made up private all girls’ boarding school full of young hellions. His humor would sit well with fans of Charles Adams. Searle’s cartoons and artwork were seen everywhere from Life, New Yorker, Punch and even TV Guide in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Video –
1080p HD, 2.20:1. This is a stunning looking transfer. Colors are lustrous. There is immaculate detail and a freshness to almost every scene. All that was embedded with the original Todd-AO process seems to have been brought to life again. While the home experience doesn’t feature the floor to ceiling curved screens like the original run, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray wizards have given us a real sight to behold. Fans of the film with be delighted and anyone with an interest in just how good those unusual sixties film processes can look should take a gander at this one.

Audio –
5.0 DTS track in English. Subtitles are offered in English SDH. Everything sounds fine including the cloyingly catchy title tune.

Extras -
Commentary with Director Ken Annakin, trailer, TV spots and a booklet with an essay. Twilight Time continues its delightful habit of offering a complete isolated music score track.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good

Bullhead Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Bullhead (Belgium)
Rundskop (original title)
Stars:Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy, Barbara Sarafian
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Released by Image Entertainment, Drafthouse Films

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

There have been some actors who have shown a devotion to a part that goes well beyond the normal preparation. Robert DeNiro put on considerable weight to portray boxer Jake LaMotta in his later years. In order to portray the title role in the Machinist, a man whose insomnia has wracked and starved his body, Christian Bale went on a drastic diet for months to present a physically emaciated figure to the camera. For Bullhead, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts took bulking up for the part to the extreme. He tells us in the Making Of featurette that he came up with a combination of seven cans of tuna fish that he mixed with water in a blender. This concoction went down the hatch multiple times a day for weeks and weeks on end. When we get a look at him in the very first shot of the film he is more than imposing. He has become a hulking massive figure. Granted there are a few appliances on his face from the make-up department, but nothing can take away from the truly remarkable performance that Matthias brings to the part of Jacky. As we try to take in this figure in a dark room his voice over tells us that, “You’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week, next year…until the end of time. Fucked.” Bullhead, the movie then shows us in detail that this man is indeed fucked. It is a dark and brooding story with a very compelling character in the lead.

Set in the bucolic pastures and gorgeous landscapes of Belgium, we watch as Matthias feeds illegal hormones to his cattle. This makes them worth more, but is not legal. We watch as he deals with people who are no good for him. Other cattlemen, veterinarians, people who may or may be informants and most tellingly those who may or may not be his friends. Then we watch him shoot up with steroids. He juices the cattle and himself.

As an adult his is alone even though he is among people and family he has grown up with and known his whole life. Bits of a backstory creep in. First time feature director Michael Roskam introduces these scenes in some very clever ways. Sometimes we look over Jacky’s shoulder and then see what he sees as a child. Other times we are talking to him as adult and then all of a sudden we’re back in his youth. This is done in a non-linear fashion but builds slowly and purposefully. There was a girl he was infatuated with as a boy. There was also an incident of such tragic proportions that it changes him forever. These threads weave together joining the lonely adult Jacky with the tortured child. Fatefully he meets this girl again and their unrequited interactions are painful to witness. Though Jacky appears to run his business without any problems he has no social skills when it comes to talking to the ladies. He sees them but they are always out of reach, almost beyond his understanding.

The crime story track that also runs through the film is populated with some very intense investigators. The lead detective lady is very concerned. There are lots of cops that feel odd standing about in such a rural setting. Compared to Jacky’s dilemmas in life the fattening up of a few steaks doesn’t quite hold the same urgency. The murder of a cop that steps up the investigation feels a bit contrived and an excuse to bring in a swat team for the climax. We’re set up for a real roid rage explosion worthy of The Hulk. Instead we get a jumbled scene in an elevator that’s not quite satisfying either as an action set piece or as a character denouement.

Bullhead got the nomination for Best Foreign Picture for the 2012 Academy Awards. The attention this film received sits squarely on Matthias Schoenaerts’ enhanced shoulders. The cinemaphotography also deserves accolades. The interiors with the cattle have a truly remarkable look to them. There are so many similarities between the hunched demeanor of the people in their presence and the cattle that are awaiting their slaughter. Occasionally director Roskam falls into a cliché like the sepia tones that drench the mental hospital corridors, but for the most part what he reaches for is very interesting. The backstory of Jacky is such a strong statement that the close of the film doesn’t hold up to that level of drama. There is a tremendous performance here that simmers and broods with an intensity that matches the creative character of Jacky perfectly. The present day story has its merits but ultimately does not do enough to make a movie that such a great character deserves.

Video
2.35:1. 1080p. This is shot on film and it shows. The exteriors both day and night are wonderful to behold. Black levels are deep and the muted colors are selected from a palate that matches the flavor of the film very well.  This is an easy film to just sit back and marvel at how rich and satisfying many of the scenes look.

Audio
DTS HD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 presented in Flemish. Subtitles are offered in English Dutch and Flemish. The subtitles were all on screen long enough and clear enough to read and easy to follow.

Extras
The Making of Bullhead, Interview with Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Roskam, Theatrical Trailer, Commentary with the Director in English, and the 2005 short The One Thing To Do.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Good