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Archive for June, 2013

Scum (1979) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

Stars: Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth, John Blundell, Phil Daniels
Director: Alan Clarke
Released by Kino Lorber

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Alan Clarke mostly working in television in Britain made a series of shorts and films. He died in his early fifties but left a legacy of some very powerful films about the working class. The underprivileged and violent young men that populated his films were drawn very realistically. These were tough kids who were growing into tougher man. He provided an unflinching look at the lifestyles on the underbelly of society. Made in Britain (1982) featured a young Tim Roth. The Firm (1989) Starred Gary Oldman. Both of these were TV Movies that pack quite a punch. The Firm ranks up there with The Football Factory (2004) as the best films about soccer (football) hooligans and the constant rumbling they celebrate the matches with. However back in 1977 Alan Clarke was asked to pull his punches. He made a scathing criticism of the current juvenile detention system that featured beatings, rape, and suicide. The borstal system as it was known was a school of very hard knocks that served to bring more kids to their knees than achieve any kind of reform. The BBC elected not to air it due to the content. Clarke’s response was to go ahead and remake it as a feature film. Many of the same cast members reprised their roles. The theatrical version is bloodier, rougher, and has more foul language. The gang rape and suicide are portrayed much more graphically. The suicide scene is harrowing to sit through.


The film opens like a typical prison picture with the new fish getting berated by the guards. They march down the corridors with their new prison clothes as the inmates yell at them – only these are mostly boys and teenagers. Carlin is a big kid who has a reputation. The guards lay into him immediately as do the tough inmates who currently rule the roost inside. The top guy is called the daddy and he makes sure Carlin knows who his daddy is, leaving him bloody and beaten. Ray Winstone (The Proposition, Hugo) plays Carlin. He is a big imposing guy who exudes a steely determination. It is clear from the start that the guards beat the kids so the bigger kids beat the smaller kids. It’s a simple Darwinian pecking order inside the walls. Right from the beginning director Alan Clarke makes his style clear and it works perfectly for this film. The film has a documentary look to it with fairly simple shots that feature plenty of light. It looks very much like a BBC TV documentary. There is no music, none at all. We know that Carlin is going to get even with the daddy who beat him up. He strolls calmly into the rec room. He lifts a few pool balls off the snooker table and drops them into a big gym sock. He lets the sock hang at his side as he casually saunters from one room to the next till he finds his quarry. Then in a blitzing movement he swings the sock in a huge arc bringing it down on the boy’s face a few times. It is a very powerful sequence all done in one shot. If you look carefully you can spot where something softer has been substituted for the pool balls prior to the actual strike. Now Carlin is the Daddy and will run things in the borstal.

While much of the film is full of angst, anger and physical outbursts one character stands apart. Archer played very nicely by Mick Ford marches to a very different drum. He stages his protests in humorous pokes at the authorities. He demands vegetarian food not because he is a vegetarian, but just to make it more difficult for them. He does not wear shoes as the leather “offends his beliefs” At one meeting with the Governor he reflects that Mecca has been appealing to him and he may switch his religion. It is a very sixties style personal revolution powered by a wise ass form of dark humor. He is like a character out of Catch-22. No one messes with Archer. He becomes one of the few that Carlin takes a genuine liking to.

Throughout the film the kids must report to the Governor. They are made to stand at attention sandwiched between the bull like guards. It’s a humiliating encounter. Clearly this system does not reform anyone at all. There is a vicious gang rape in a greenhouse that leaves the victim unable to cope with anything at all. Tensions mount till they explode in a violent riot. The sequence with the kids hurling chairs and tables into the middle of a big lunch room looks very much like it is completely out of hand. In the supplements one learns that it was indeed out of control. Scum is a very affecting piece. Alan Clarke makes his statement clearly and boldly. The crushing atmosphere within the institution remains very much in your face during the whole movie. By the time it actually aired on television the borstals as portrayed in the film had been changed.

Video – 1.66:1
This is not a pretty film. It’s got a sparse palate that lives mostly in the grey scale. Lighting purposefully has that Television like wash that renders everything kind of flat. Costumes are drab and faces are pasty. The walls and corridors have that institutional dullness. However within the pale some things stand out. This new Blu-Ray transfer gets the job done well though the picture quality is never going to be nice looking and that suits the film that just fine.

Audio – 5.1 and 2.0 in English.
There is no background music at all. The British accents can be a bit hard to follow at times though the intent is bloody well clear in every scene.

Extras – Commentary with Ray Winstone, Interviews with writer Roy Minton and others, Trailer. It would have been nice to see something with Director Clarke but hearing the writer speak about their intentions is very interesting, especially how they went from a TV Movie to a theatrical film.

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

Movie – Excellent

Blu-Ray – Good

Hard Times (1975) Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Stars: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Strother Martin
Director: Walter Hill

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

A train travels along through the countryside. At first it looks like your basic country scenery until details like an abandoned factory and large stretches of weedy uncared for land pass by. No one is hustling off to work. It’s pretty desolate. One of the cars on the train is open and we see Charles Bronson standing inside with that cold emotionless stare just taking in the view. He squints a bit and then jumps off the train as it slows down with a practiced hop. He’s carrying one little bag, that’s it. Underneath the credits Walter Hill sets the scene very nicely with his first directorial effort. This is set during the depression. We get a fleeting glimpse of the hard times and see that Charles Bronson goes it alone. He rides the rails like a lot of folks did then just looking to get by. That’s all Bronson wants – to just get by with no strings attached. It won’t be that simple.

The seventies was a very unique vintage for American movies. It was not at all uncommon to have a film that was on the one hand a hard hitting action film full of cool posturing and yet on the other hand capable of exuding such a personal style and imprint of the director. Whether that produced a combination of artfulness and exploitation or just a markedly idiosyncratic style was fairly commonplace.  Directors had a lot more leeway in terms of style and expression. Walter Hill came up as a writer. He wrote the screenplays for Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), the buddy detective film with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp,  Hickey and Boggs (1972) and Paul Newman’s Harper detective sequel, The Drowning Pool (1975). He had developed a nice feel for streety hard boiled characters that would push hard to get their way. His narratives stayed on the track and got where they were going with no extraneous detours. Even in his scripts his visual flare was apparent. Bronson and Coburn had worked on two John Sturges films together – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). Though neither would attain the superstardom that co-star Steve McQueen did they both worked a great deal and had several signature roles. Hard Time is a terrific picture and one that does not get near the recognition it deserves.

This is not the story of the rise of Gentleman Jim Corbett who came up from this kind of rough boxing to become a world champion. His life was made into a great film with Errol Flynn in 1942. No Bronson’s Chaney wants in just long enough to get his money and then get out. No strings attached. Boom boom then gone like the breeze. James Coburn’s Speed spots Chaney in a minor league brawl and offers to organize his fights. He takes more than an obvious pleasure in beating the other managers and fight promoters out of every dollar he can with his bets. Speed has an incredible wise ass grin and an almost pathological need to gamble so deep that he is right on the edge.  Strother Martin easily recognizable as the warden in Cool Hand Luke (1967) is on hand as Chaney’s cut man. He’ll stitch him up and care for him after the fights. Poe also has an affinity for opium and could use the cash to renew his strained relationship with the drug

Charles Bronson was fresh off the massive success of Death Wish (1974). Two things generally came along with Charles Bronson on most of his later pictures – his famous mustache and Jill Ireland. He did not sport his signature mustache in this one but Jill Ireland played the role of a lady he picks up in a coffee shop. As an actress she is the only weak link in the film that otherwise has some wonderful casting. Bruce Glover (Diamonds are Forever) and Robert Tessier as the bald headed fighter turn in strong performances.  Good attention was paid to the little details of the fights and brawls in the film. Each contestant gets a personal style and even a slice of character. The boxing looks good. Bronson moves very naturally in the fights sidestepping and slipping many of the attacks. The more dangerous kicks, elbows, and throws that accent the bouts look very convincing, too. Toward the end one becomes aware that these fighters share a respect for each other. They know they are being used but they also know they are the center of the sport. The last opponent for Chaney has a sense of fair play and clearly establishes a line he will not cross.

Set against the hardscrabble world of bare knuckle boxing Walter Hill gives us a strong action film that shows how a fighter with no strings attached can feel the tug of his fellow man. It’s a very direct film that packs a nice punch.

Video – 2.35:1
This is a very pleasing rendition of the film. Colors are represented in the same distinct tones as photographed. They have not been nudged into any overactive range. There is a recognizable filmic quality throughout with grain present where it should be. The new HD treatment brings out much detail and lends a nice rough texture to many of the rugged faces on display.

Audio – DTS 5.1 in English. Subtitles offered in English SDH
The soundtrack is clear and never overbearing. All dialogue is clear and understandable. Sound effects are delivered realistically with the occasional blow packing a real punch. You can feel many of the fights in the film and may even want to tape your ribs up after viewing.

Extras – Twilight Time contributes its signature isolated track, Trailer

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

Movie – Excellent

Blu-ray – Excellent

The Horde (2012) DVD Review

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

Stars: Maxim Sukahnov, Andrei Panin, Roza Khairullina,
Director: Andre Proshkin

Released by Entertainment One

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If you think this has anything to do with Mongol hordes rampaging across Asia and Europe, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If you are expecting epic battles scenes, you won’t find even a single one. Set in 1357 this starts out as a very odd kind of historical film and then descends into a tepid mix of suffering and religious propaganda.

We first meet the members of the mighty Khan dynasty at their royal court where they gorge themselves on meat and subject everyone to their sadistic whims. A pair of priests is humiliated and sent away assured that their homeland will be sacked. Then the top guy in the dynasty is strangled. It is said he choked on a mutton bone. A new Khan offspring is sworn in. The elder matriarch of the family is very evil indeed and always covered in deep white pancake make up. She and her son cavort in an unseemly manner. After more feasting and fetishes mom goes blind. Her son summons all manner of healers but none can cure her. Two soldiers travel to somewhere in Russia and tell the man in charge there that unless they give over their top miracle worker they will sack the place and burn it to the ground.

The religious leader and miracle worker Metropolitan Alexis and a disciple make the journey. He does his best to heal the woman but it does not work. He is stripped and cast outside. He elects to get himself caught as a slave and sentenced to work in the baths. He spends his days in an underground hell hole shoveling cow dung into a fiery pit that warms the baths for those in the waters above them. Everyone there is incredibly filthy, with long beards and hair. They are all on the brink of death. There is a resurrection after Alexis catches fire in the pits. Suddenly the Tartar matriarch can see, or she was faking it before. Now she has faith. Another Khan is murdered but mom no longer advocates evil to the new son in charge. There is a quick paragraph flashed on the screen to let us know the world was spared the wrath of Khan due to this man’s miracle. The bulk of the film is taken up with the miracle worker’s tremendous suffering. The Mongols or Tartars are presented as Neanderthal pagans. A few reports about the film on the internet cite funding from the Russian Orthodox Church. Whether that is true or not The Horde feels a whole lot more like religious dogma than any kind of historical epic.

Video – 2.35:1
The bright scenes look pretty good. Most of the darker scenes fare well except for a few times when the image gets a little murky and cloudy. Clearly a lot of effort was spent on the buildings and set design.

Audio – Dolby Digital 5.1 in Russian, Dolby Digital 2.0 in English Subtitles offered in English. None of the characters are all that engaging even with the subtitled support. The dialogue never comes off as anything remotely natural.

Extras – None

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

Movie – Poor

DVD – Fair / Good

Tower Block (2102) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

Stars: Sheridan Smith, Jack O’Connell, Ralph Brown, Russell Tovey
Directors: James Nunn, Ronnie Thompson

Releases by Shout Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Tower Block is a dirty looking, lean and mean thriller that works. It is decidedly a formula genre picture. You take a small group of people and trap them in a desperate situation and turn up the flames till it really cooks. Directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson have done just that in their debut film. This British film is set in the top floor of a tower block of flats. We’re told in a very brief preamble that these were once built to accommodate the growing population but that now they have become magnets for crime. A developer has emptied it out except for the top floor. The residents refuse to leave till they are assured of alternate housing. One evening two masked thugs confront a young man in the hallway and proceed to beat him senseless. No one comes to his aid despite his pleas for him. Finally a young lady comes out of her apartment and tires to stop the fight. She is slugged in the face and knocked to the ground. The young man dies. When the detective comes around to investigate no one will say a word. Even Becky, played by Sheridan Smith, hides behind her obvious swollen face and says she remembers nothing.

Three months later we meet the people who live on the top floor. There is an older loving couple, a family with a kid addicted to violent video games, an abusive mother who beats and berates her young daughter, two strange guys, an alcoholic loner and an obnoxious young punk who goes door to door shaking the residents down for cheap protection money. We get to know them all just a little bit. Becky goes out on a date, trying to get back in the game after a long term relationship went south. This is all established very well giving us a look inside several of the apartments. We just get the meat, no side dishes. Then suddenly the bullet from a sniper’s high powered rifle zips through a window. It is a shocker, too. We see a shot of the empty hallway. There is not a soul to be seen in it, but we hear the screams from all the apartments. Some folks get shot dead. One is wounded. It is brutal, bloody and unforgiving. The denizens of the apartments all empty out into the hallway. This is where the movie begins to really hit its stride. They try to piece together what it happening. The internet and phone lines are all down and no one can get a cell signal. The video game kid gives everyone chapter and verse on the kind of rifle that is besieging them. He evens knows how much one like that would cost. The older woman is a nurse and tends to a man’s leg wound. As the film goes on we see how this disparate group bands together.

Writer James Moran (Severance) sets up cautious alliances. He shows us the distrust they all feel. Now that the chips are down the tenants are revealed for what they can contribute. Jack O’Connell (Harry Brown) plays the punk extortionist wonderfully. At one point when they need to try to break into a locked stairwell Becky says what kind of petty crook are you? It seems like a cheap shot but it’s a trick to get him to really man up and get that door open. The sniper has lots in store for these folks. People get taken out one by one. The film has keeps going with rollercoaster urgency to it. The way the people interact with each other rings true. The characters all have a genuine natural feel to them. That strength and the ability of the actors to play it believably dives this picture. In many sequences that quality serves to elevate the taught action scenes to a higher level.

Again save for a few shots of the tower building seen from afar at night we are trapped inside with the cast. Seen at night against the evening skyline the building has orange and red hues to it. It is almost a beauty shot it is so pretty. Back inside the tower all we get are pale grey tones and withered washed out colors.  Have the tenants  been denied the colors of the world for some transgression? Sheridan Smith should get some good work based on her performance here. She stands out as a leader without playing the tough girl. Tower Block is a quality piece of genre entertainment. Take the elevator to the top floor and spend some time here. Your heart could use the workout.

Video – 2.35:1
Tower Block is shot very well. Compositions are imaginative. Camera placement is very assured for these directors’ first outing. The camera movement serves the piece well and gives us a lot to look at within that cramped top floor hallway. To this reviewer’s eye the decision to drain so much of the color out of the scenes inside the building does a disservice to what was shot. A richer gray scale would have enhanced those scenes. Tension lives in the shadows and even though this is digital work there is still a better way to present it.The pictures used here are publicity pictures not taken form the disc, thought that top one looks pretty representative.

Audio – DTS 5.1 in English. No subtitles are offered.
The dialogue is delivered in British accents some of which can be tough to follow if you are not used to them. Subtitles would have been a nice option. The sound of the bullets traveling through the air and shattering the windows is killer. It is often followed by a bullet finding its target or lodging into the wall or a piece of furniture. A thriller like this needs that kind of effect. It’s a piercing sensation. Nicely done!

Extras – Commentary, behind the scenes interviews, trailer

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

Movie – Good / Excellent

Blu-Ray – Good