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Archive for January, 2013

Cheery Tree Lane (2010) DVD Review

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

Stars: Rachael Blake, Tom Butcher, Jumayn Hunter, Ashley Chin, Sonny Muslim
Director: Paul Andrew Williams
Released by Image Entertainment

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

In 2006 British writer director Paul Andrew Williams made a stunning debut with his first film, London to Brighton. It opens in the middle of the night with a young woman and a girl huddled together hiding in the back of an all night convenience store. One of them has been beaten and the other is terrified. Why are they there at that hour and what happened to them? Williams gets wonderful and very believable performances from his small cast. The script is drum tight and perfectly crafted for the limited resources of an independent film. The narrative throttles along through the world of prostitution, commenting on how people are used. It has a powerful and emotionally arresting ending. London to Brighton was in my top ten of the year and easily one of the best made low budget Indies to come along in years. Paul Andrew Williams was someone to keep an eye on.

Two years later he wrote and directed The Cottage. The film starts out as a dark comedy about kidnapping but later devolves into a hackneyed tale of backwoods horror driven by vicious maiming and killing. Some of the farm tools were used very creatively. It was sort of funny. However it was not the follow up one expected from Paul Williams. Now with his third film, Cherry Tree Lane he’s all in. All the chips are pushed across the table and we’re about to see what kind of hand he’s holding.

The film starts with a static shot of a pot cooking on a stove. It looks like some vegetables are in water. The flame under the pot burns away. The kitchen looks very well appointed. The water starts to boil. Okay it’s boiling over and no one is noticing. That makes a statement but we’ve been watching this pot for a long while. Then a man and woman go through the motions of eating dinner. It’s clear they are married and experiencing some troubles. Just what they talk about seems of no consequence. The actors toss out their lines as if they have no interest in what they are saying. The director doesn’t particularly let us hear the soft spoken dialogue either. Again he holds on a static shot of the two of them at the dinner table. He holds this shot long after we get the point. Something needs to happen.

Three youths burst through the door. They beat and tie the man up. They threaten the woman but spare her the gag she seems so afraid of if she’ll be quiet. For the bulk of the film we look at a couch with the woman and one of the thugs on it. The man writhes on the floor. Any real violence occurs off screen. We see the husband react as much as he can with his arms and legs tied and mouth gagged as his wife is dragged into a room and violated. These punks wait and wait for the couple’s son to come home. He wronged them in a drug deal and now one of their cousins is in jail. It’s apparently the son, Sebastian’s fault. They refer to him as Seb and let everyone know they are going to do him in. Someone goes out. He comes back. Two girls and a young kid come over. Every once in a while the head bad guy gives the dad a kick. It’s painfully slow. All of this happens while we are stuck in that same room looking at the couch. Yes, the son does eventually come home. The off screen violence escalates and the camera eventually moves upstairs and back down again.

Cherry Tree Lane is only 77 minutes long but the pace is languid. A series of too tight close ups break up the static shot of the couch from time to time. There may or may not be something about the class distinction between the rich parents and the wayward youths in their house. The blasé attitude that the leader shows toward violence is disturbing and may be a comment about juvenile killers. The direction of the adults is so realistic as to be banal. Things plod along with no apparent rhythm. There is almost nothing on the soundtrack except for low mumbled dialogue. Does that mean what they say is really unimportant. There is a classical piano interlude played a few times. At least twice we get to hear the sub woofer rumble as if someone were threatening us with white noise and static. The subject of home invasions has been done before. Sometimes it’s played as a thriller like Ils / Them (2006) or for comedy like Home Alone (1990). Paul Williams seems to draw an inordinate amount of style and inspiration from Michael Haneke’s French film, Funny Games (1997). That one was tough to take but it had its fans. This film may have an appeal for those who liked Funny Games, but then they have already seen it (even two times if you count the American shot for shot remake).

What’s very disappointing here is not that this is yet another home invasion film. What is such a let down is that director Williams seems to just latch on to another director’s style rather than make some decisions on his own. Where is the tremendous creativity that drove his first film? What happened to his writing? He was not given this to do the best he could with. It’s his script. He wrote it. He is an accomplished director working with a good crew. Williams didn’t settle for this but made his own decisions. London to Brighton remains an original and striking film. Hopefully one day Paul Williams will get back on that same track. Taken by itself Cherry Tree Lane is dull and derivative. Taken as the third film by a once promising filmmaker it’s a real let down.

Video – 2.35:1
The film looks very professional. Colors are all as intended. The compositions just sit there with very little going on, however it is all rendered purposefully.

Audio – English Dolby Digital 5.1 with closed caption subtitles offered in English.
Large portions of the dialogue, particularly the long establishing dinner scene are very difficult to understand. The actors mumble and toss their lines aside as if they had no interest in what they were saying. This is not the fault of the actors or the sound design. It is the director’s vision accurately realized for better or worse. There are at least two very intense bass rumbling escalations that will send your subwoofer into overdrive if you’ve got it turned up high to try to hear the dialogue.

Extras – None.

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

DVD – Good

Movie – Poor

Our Man Flint (1965) Blu-Ray Review

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Stars: James Coburn, Lee J. Cobb, Gila Golan
Director: Daniel Mann
Released by – Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

When Our Man Flint came out spies and secret agents were everywhere thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the James Bond films especially Goldfinger (1964). Britain’s hit TV show The Avengers had just welcomed Diana Rigg to the series and was about to get a huge boost in the ratings. Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David Mcallum as Illya Kuryakin were the popular TV stars of The Man From Uncle which inspired the Mel Brooks parody series, Get Smart. David Niven starred in Where The Spies Are. There were secret agent paperbacks like Matt Helm series which would become a film series with Dean Martin in 1966. But none of them had James Coburn.

James Coburn had appeared in films before mostly is small supporting roles. He played a bad guy along with Lee Van Cleef in Budd Boettecher’s Randolph Scott film, Ride Lonesome (1959). He’d done lots of TV westerns and detective shows. However he made directors, producers and casting agents all over sit up and take notice when he appeared in The Magnificent Seven (1960). He was Britt the ever so calm and relaxed member of the team who was deadly with a knife. He’d seen the Kurosawa film it was based on and seems to channel the Zen like presence exhibited by the expert swordsman in that film. He also studied martial arts with Bruce Lee like his co-star Steve McQueen.

Our Man Flint is lots of fun but it is not an out and out comedy like the Austin Powers films that take so much from it. Not that it doesn’t have lots of humor – it does. Instead Flint is played straight. Derek Flint outdoes Bond at ever turn. He has more gadgets, more girls and more expertise than 007. However Derek Flint is not a team player. He works alone. He answers to no one. At the very beginning of the film after the world is threatened by an evil organization that can control the weather the various representatives of the world all put the attributes needed to combat this terror into a super computer. Only one name comes out. Derek Flint. Lee J. Cobb (On The Waterfront) plays his boss who is constantly frustrated trying to control Flint. Clearly the anti-authoritarian stance was a product of the times, but it still works. There is a multitude of minutia that Flint is an expert in. At one point he tracks the bad guys by recognizing traces of a bouillabaisse soup on a poison dart. He trails them to an obscure little café in Europe by sampling various soups till he finds just the right one where the bad guy sups his soup. Sure it’s ridiculous and a satire, but it is also totally possible to get caught up in the pure bold adventure.

Daniel Mann the director was well known for helming solid dramas like Come Back Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo and Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor. He seems an odd choice for this one. Most of the film is covered is wide and bright shots that lets us see the plush and op-art styled set designs. Another unusual choice was Israeli fashion model Gina Golin as the female lead. She doesn’t seem to have much flair for acting. There are however lots of good character actors here that carry their scenes with aplomb. All of the action scenes are staged with a great sense of movement. When we first see Flint he is engaging in his personal karate and fencing training sessions. They move with stylish finesse and just the right amount of showmanship. In the climatic battle scenes the camera moves on cranes and other devices to track with Flint as he demolishes his adversaries, athletically ascends ladders and volts around scaffolds. Jerry Goldsmith’s score more than rises to the occasion giving the whole film that punchy exhilaration every time Flint goes into action. Goldsmith also has his share of seducing melodies and a wide range of orchestrations that keep the film moving at a brisk pace. He even has some fun with the score using the film’s main motif for the harp soloist, the jazz combo in the Euro- beatnik club and any other places he can squeeze or sneak it in.

The plot line is simply Derek Flint being called upon to save the world from weather controlling bad guys in their hidden fortress. In two of the excellent featurettes producer Saul David and screenwriter Ben Starr demonstrate that they clearly had a good sense of what they wanted in this film. It’s obvious that James Coburn is the man that carries this film. He looks so good. Whether displaying sharp suits, doing martial arts, being pampered by a bevy of beauties or analyzing the ingredients of that famous bouillabaisse, he pulls it off. Steve McQueen and James Coburn were two of the coolest guys ever to grace the screen. Coburn had that look in his eye, that wicked grin that lets us in on the joke. We’re with him. He wears an inviting charismatic smile, never a smirk.

Video – 2.35:1 This is a bright and pleasing transfer. Colors are bold and vibrant. The set design’s op-art look is rendered faithfully. The alternately stylish and wacky costuming looks terrific. You’ll be able to spot the lesser quality of the stock footage that is used. Our Man Flint demands a bright and peppy look and it gets it here.

Audio – English 1.0 DTS-HD mono track with subtitles offered in English SDH. This is a great track. Jerry Goldsmith’s score has plenty of separation. You can hear the lower tones of Coburn’s line delivery. We are so used to hearing multi channels and surrounds that it is refreshing to hear just how good a solid mono track can sound. Goldsmith’s main theme will stick in your head for days.

Extras – In addition to Twilight Time’s signature isolated score there is a whole boatload of extras on this one. Commentary with film historians Lee Pfeifer and Eddy Friedfeld. Derek Flint:A Spy is Born. Directing Flint: Daniel Mann. Spy-er-ama. Spy Style. Flint vs. Kael. A Gentleman’s Game. Perfect Bouillabaisse. Screen Tests. Storyboard Sequences. Trailer.

Be sure to watch the screen test with Raquel Welch and Coburn. Two of longer featurettes are very worthwhile. One offers a look at the director Daniel Mann and his non-compromising career. The Spy is Born one traces the development of the Flint persona and producer Saul David’s hand at keeping things appealingly commercial. He is quoted as saying he was worried until he heard Jerry Goldsmith’s score at which point everything fell into place.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Experiment in Terror (1962) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Stars: Lee Remick, Glenn Ford, Stefanie Powers, Ross Martin, Ned Glass
Director: Blake Edwards
Released by – Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This film grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go till the ending. Over the opening credits we see Lee Remick driving home at night. She crosses the San Francisco Bay Bridge bathed in neon light and Henry Mancini’s sparse and cool jazz score. She pulls into her garage high up in the Twin Peaks community. She is barely out of the car before she is seized by the neck. Director Blake Edwards holds on an extreme close up. We see the black glove around her neck, her frightened eyes and part of a man’s face. A creepy voice with a desperate wheeze tells her not to call the cops and that she will steal one hundred thousand dollars from the bank where she works or she or her younger sister will be killed. After the man leaves she calls the FBI. In a flash the line goes dead and she is pinned to the floor, a shoe grinding down on her face.

Director Blake Edwards is known for crafting light and breezy comedies and romantic films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Great Race, 10, and the Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers. Just a few years before this film he directed many of the Peter Gunn TV shows featuring Henry Mancini’s iconic theme song. Experiment in Terror is based on a book by The Gordons, a husband and wife team who also wrote the screenplay. Glenn Ford’s character here, FBI agent John Ripley was also played by Broderick Crawford in Down These Dark Streets (1954) written by The Gordons. Phil Lathrop whose killer black and white photography makes a major contribution went on to shoot John Boorman’s Point Black (1967) with Lee Marvin. He also did Lonely Are The Brave (1962) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Not only does Lathrop bring a strong noir-like contrast to the look of the film he uses many extreme close-ups and some very unusual angles. He’ll tilt the camera to gives things an off kilter look or shoot from below the actors looking up at them. His work is beautiful here but also serves to help ratchet up the tension.

Experiment in Terror is a first class thriller. The leads are perfectly cast. Lee Remick is such a believable presence. She is frightened and unnerved to be sure but also carries enough of backbone to let us know that she’s not going to go along with this. Right from the start when the creep offers to cut her in on some of the stolen loot if she behaves she turns down his offer. She does nothing athletic or unduly plucky. The part is written and played naturally yet Remick finds a real strength in the part that she makes very apparent. Glenn Ford is solidly dependable here. He’s drawing from the same well that brought up the tough guy from The Big Heat (1953), the teacher in Blackboard Jungle (1955), and the father in Ransom (1956). This is pretty much Stefanie Powers’ first noticeable role in a feature film. She makes a strong impression. She’s incredible cute as the younger sister yet also able to convey deep seated terror when confronted by the movie’s villain. Fans of TV’s The Wild Wild West will instantly recognize Jim West’s partner Artemis Gordon.. In that show Ross Martin would wear various disguises and make ups, a talent his character uses here. When you are so familiar with an actor from a TV show it can come as a shocker to see how viciously effective her can be as the killer/kidnapper/robber/rapist here. Martin gives his voice a low measured tone and an asmatic wheeze. He is so intense, often show in close-up. His eyes and breathing instill a deep unsettling fear. This is one powerful performance. When the film ends, he gets a well deserved credit all to himself. Ned Glass needs to be acknowledged for his portrayal of the informant Popcorn. Ned is familiar from tons of TV shows and a memorable role as one of the villains in Charade (1963). It’s a small part but director Edwards gives it plenty of room and respect. Character actors like Ned Glass used to populate movies all the time. It’s practically a lost art and Ned Glass had it down pat.

 

San Francisco has been featured in lots of films from Bullitt to Dirty Harry. Edwards shows us the sophisticated adult city at first. As the film progresses we see the different communities and neighborhoods. At one point as the FBI agents are scouring the city for clues they scout out a karate class. We see the tough Sensei chopping and casting his attackers aside. In a nice touch, just as they are leaving we see a woman calmly dispatch her partner leaving him under her fist on the floor. It’s just what we’d like to see Lee Remick do to the creep. But on another level it simply acknowledges her strength as a woman. The climactic sequence at Candlestick Park during a baseball game is the kind of staging that Hitchcock would do. You can even make out the real Don Drysdale on the mound. The choice to stage the final chase scene in the most crowded parts of the stadium was brilliant. Instead of running across seats or balconies we see Ross Martin trying to push his way through the crowds as they make their exit. He is cramped between bodies in the tunnels and hallways. People can barely shuffle their feet an inch at a time yet he is trying to blast through. The FBI agents and cops are also caught up in the quicksand of the crowds. It’s a tremendously claustrophobic feeling. You just want out, but are trapped.

The film runs just a bit over two hours but drives with an urgent narrative. Yet there are times when the compositions by DP Phil Lathrop and the blocking by Edwards stop to create some truly artistic set pieces. Following a lead, the agents come into the apartment of a woman that Ripley had questioned before. When they enter they are stopped dead in their tracks. Parts of arms and legs are scattered over tables. Heads are suspended on poles. Her apartment is a mannequin studio. The camera brushes by entire bodies that are hanging from the ceiling as Ripley searches the place. His partner stops him and calls him back. There is something about one of the bodies hanging upside down. It’s a dead body.That combination of artfulness and horror is beautifully done. Sure it’s a creepy scene but it’s also a work of art. Experiment in Terror looks fantastic here. Turn off all the lights and phones and lock yourself in for a real delicious treat.

Video – 1.85:1 This is another stunning presentation from Twilight Time. Black levels are deep pools you can dive into. Contrast is powerful where it needs to be. Film grain is still apparent as it should be. The film has many close ups and you will see the stubble on Ross Martin’s face closer than his razor blade. The various nighttime scenes move from a seductive urban glow to a shadowy landscape of alleyways and hiding places. Satisfying on all levels.

Audio – English DTS-HD 5.1 with subtitles offered in English SDH. There is very nice separation in evidence here. Dialogue gets plenty of space and is clear at all times. Henry Mancini’s music score goes from cool jazz to some sparse textures. Much of what we hear in the suspenseful sequences sounds like an autoharp but also feels like piano strings being hammered. The effect is wonderful. This is an unusual score with Mancini going much more for effect than groovy melodies. The orchestrations are very accomplished. They enhance the tension beautifully.

Extras – We have Twilight Time’s signature isolate music track. There are also trailers and TV spots. One of those TV spots is very short but quite effective.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie –Excellent

Lightning Bug (2004) Blu-Ray Review

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Stars: Bret Harrison, Laura Prepon, Ashley Laurence, Bob Penny and Kevin Gage
Director: Robert Hall
Released by – Image Entertainment

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The cover and marketing would have you believe this is some kind of horror film. It’s not. Lightning Bug is a coming of age story built around the real life of the director Robert Hall’s formative years in the south yearning to get into the special effects end of the movie business. Portions of it seem to have grown right out of the daydreams of a young kid stranded in small town USA during the eighties with only his copies of Fangoria and a yeaning for the hot Goth chick who works in the video store to keep him going. While that gives the story a bit of a juvenile afternoon school special naiveté it also sharpens the focus for his target audience. Robert Hall has set his story in the VHS store eighties and made his thirst for Hollywood gore effects a kind of Holy Grail that will have strong appeal for those that can relate. His directorial skills may not be first class but his heart is in the right place.

Green Graves (Bret Harrison) lives with his little brother and single mother in a very rural southern town. He is fascinated with the kinds of gore styled effects found in cheap horror films. He pours over issues of Fangoria. His rental history at the local VHS rental store is filed with sequels to films whose only saving grace is the over the top make-up and special effects. He figures his ticket out of town is to transform a local Halloween haunted house show into a work of art that will get him noticed. He scares and charms Mr. Tightwiler, affectionately played by Bob Penny who runs the local show into letting him makes this year’s one for the ages. The fake pig monster he creates to get his attention is nicely done. It’s impossible not to get caught up in his boyish enthusiasm. To give the film a dark side his mother marries a truly despicable drunk of a man who threatens everyone around him. Kevin Gage plays the part with relish. He’s a first class creep. He makes fun of Grant for his childish infatuation with horror films and dreams of becoming a Hollywood make-up man. Naturally everyone who sees this film will be on Grant’s side just waiting for the moment when his new step dad will get his comeuppance.

Laura Prepon recognizable from her years in That 70s Show does a very nice job as that girl who works in the video store who understands him. Her name in this film is Angevin Duvet. The name makes no sense but sounds so sexy when she says it. Their love story plays out sweetly if obviously. Things conspire against Grant eventually getting him in trouble with the entire bible-belt community. Too many of the characters are drawn as cardboard only there to advance the plot. There are several scenes with Grant and his buddies who go out catching fireflies. They are poorly staged and lack any of the night time mysticism and mystery that would have captivated these kids. One of whom is so broadly played he’s a cartoon. However the best parts of this movie succeed in spite of all this. Lightning Bug is a coming of age film for the VHS store raised monster kid. Grant’s mom is played by Ashley Laurence from the Hellraiser movies. There are tons of recognizable movie posters and toys. The recreation of the period VHS store is a nice blast from the past. Just watching Grant walk down the aisle and spotting familiar titles is a real kick. Those parts of the movies are as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers. The fact that director Robert Hall really did become a successful make-up and special effects man adds a very nice texture to the proceedings. How much is true, how much is daydreaming doesn’t matter. He gets enough of what sings to him to sing to us to make it worthwhile.

Video – The 1.85:1 image looks very nice here. Colors are strong. Detail clear especially in the close ups. The darker scenes work fine though they do not sport the kind of lightning and compositions that would make them stand out.  There is a pleasant amount of grain. The look is very much that of a TV movie that you’d see in the eighties. While it could have been better it does not impede the story at all. The publicity pictures do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray.

Audio –
All dialogue is clear. The soundtrack feels like it is filled with songs your friend made you put in the film. None of them really match or enhance the scenes they are in. The rest of the track is serviceable.

Extras – Two commentaries – one with the director and one with him and some of the cast.
Making of featurette, Afterglow: A look back (new for this disc), Deleted scenes and an extended cut. The longer cut features a character that was edited out of the regular theatrical release. The pace and narrative seems to move better without him, though fans will enjoy the chance to see these added sequences.

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie –Good