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Archive for March, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

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Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bernthal, Kyle Chandler, Jon Favreau, Ethan Suplee, Rob Reiner, Margot Robbie
Director: Martin Scorsese

Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Martin Scorsese has become so adept at this particular type of cinematic storytelling that he can leap up on the bar and dazzle us with swirling camera movements and sure fire editing. He can also retire to the back room of some smoky lounge and just jazz away on the keyboard creating a comforting layer of familiarity. The film starts with a dwarf, a little person being thrown head first at some kind of huge dart board. There is a large crowd of revelers surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio who is leading this spectacle. Just as the dwarf is hurled into the air the film freeze frames. DiCaprio begins a voice over as we go back to the beginning of the story to see how he got there. We’ll pick this part up again later in the picture and then ride it to the end. He’s used this narrative structure before in films like Casino. We get an incredibly adept use of music with song choices that fit the right moment so precisely. It’s a period piece but one that will be recognizable down to the last detail. Costumes, hair styles and mannerisms will all reflect the period. Naturally this will center around the bad guys. Hanging out with the bad guys is always more fun. Scorsese is clearly capable of weaving his story telling in a variety of ways. Hugo and the Dylan documentary No Direction Home are completely different in style. With The Wolf though we’ve got one of the funniest films he has ever made. The actors have lots of room to work here. From that first frame, that very first sequence we know just where we are and we’re damn glad to be there.

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This is the story of Jordan Belfort. We see him go from a young stock broker on his first job with a respectable firm to someone who creates his own company becoming so renowned that he gets a feature story written about him in a magazine. That fame will also lead to an FBI investigation. He learns to break all the rules. Money flows like water. He and his merry band of thieves live high on the hog indulging every whim. Marching bands and whores routinely parade through the office at the close of the day. Jordan gives these powerful motivation talks to his team. He fires them up. He seems to genuinely love them and is so proud of their success. Yet he is not at all above bribing an office worker to shave her head just for the momentary thrill of it.

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Once the investigation is in full throttle and Jordan’s empire is beginning to implode his wife, The Duchess of Bay Ridge reminds him that he once told her that there are no friends on Wall Street. The implication is that it’s okay to rat your friends out to save your own hide. The trust concept takes a pretty savage beating in the film. At this first day on the job on Wall Street Mathew McConaughey takes him out to lunch and says it’s all bullshit. No one knows where the stocks are going. Jordan agrees but asks wouldn’t it be better if they made their clients some money? Fugazi, fugozi. No one ever gets their money back, it just keeps rolling. Then when he gets into selling penny stocks at the strip mall store he spins a line of BS that is magnificent. The guys all gather around him in awe as he closes the deal based on not one shred of truth. He starts his company Straton Oakmont with the correct supposition that if the firm sounds old and trustworthy, then they are. Which they never will be. There is a very real camaraderie between the guys there. They behave like kids on a pirate ship, swashbucklers one and all. But is there any honor among these thieves? During all the good times and debauchery we hear about one man having a heart attack, another taking his own life and yet they are just flashes in the pan. The parade keeps going, the money keep on rolling and no one looks back. It is very intoxicating. Jonah Hill had been literally pissing on the subpoenas in the office in front of everyone. Jordan and Jonah genuinely look out for each other. Jordan in fact saves his life. But when the big push comes to the big shove we see that there are in fact no friends on Wall Street. Everyone pays the piper.

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Scorsese portrays the intimacy between this marauding bunch well. We can see that the actors are so deeply entrenched that the scenes that are improvised flow freely from their characters. Rob Reiner is cast as Jordan’s dad. He is brought in to run security and help keep things straight in the office. He and Jonah Hill really seem to go at it, each one pushing the other. You almost expect Reiner to crack up like Harvey Korman on the Carol Burnet Show. You can seem they both are getting a real kick out of their scenes together. There is a great moment when Reiner is flipping out over the office expenses. Jonah says that they can write off T & A which Reiner jumps on. Hill immediately claims that he said T & E. Scripted or improvised that is a classic bit. Jon Bernthal so well known as the deputy in The Walking Dead is perfectly cast as the pill pushing, weight lifting, Fu-Manchu mustache wearing Brad. Matthew McConaughey makes such an impression with his chest thumping rap and swagger that it’s hard to believe he has basically a cameo at the beginning of the film. Jonah Hill undergoes a transformation with the false teeth and ridiculous clothing. He’s got great comic timing and does wonderful things to dialogue. DiCaprio fits right into the role continuing to find more depth in his films with Scorsese.

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There is a sequence in the later third of the film with DiCaprio and Hill wrecked on Quaaludes. They are so stoned they are reduced to crawling on the floor Added to this is the urgency that DiCaprio has to tell Hill that the phones are bugged but his mouth is so droopy he can not even form words properly. This whole scene is pure slapstick recalling shorts like Charlie Chaplin’s One AM and Laurel and Hardy’s Blotto. In a film so verbally driven the physical comedy stands out like a treat. These guys are like asshole buddies. One of the best song choices is The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s Latin flavored, “Hey Leroy”.  Apart from the infectious percussion the film is built on buddies insulting each other, doing the dozens as it was called. “Hey Leroy.” “What?” “Your mama’s calling. She mad, man!” Then the whole band cracks up. It’s a put down but the kind you reserve for a good friend. We hear this song as the camera glides and dips and pans around the office with the Stratton Oakmont team working the phones. Editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker cuts between all manner of hands to phones and swaggering postures. She is amazing, giving rhythm and emotion to just making phone calls. It’s a tour de force bit. The blend of music and sights are edited together with a real master’s touch. You feel this scene as much as see it.

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The Wolf of Wall Street cruises through its three hour running time. Martin Scorsese has given us a thoroughly enjoyable film. No one gets hit over the head with any kind of message here. This is grand filmmaking. What stands out more than any of the camera moves or editing with this one is the actors. The casting is spot on. Ethan Suplee from My Name is Earl fits right in as one of the brokers. Jon Favreau as the braggart attorney is on the money, too. There is a very nice balance between the film’s narrative and the number of scenes that function as comedic or acting set pieces. Several times we get to hear a full on motivational speech from DiCapro as Jordan. These are wonderful acting segments but they also serve to set up this kind of stage at the front of the Stratton Oakmont office where their rise to glory and fall from grace are charted. Something important happens there; someone gets up and tells everyone. Even though this is the history of a criminal, the story told is a fun one. There is justice at the end but the ride there and the ridiculous extremes of behavior and wealth on display are what we remember. Sell me this pen!

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Video – 2.40:1
Blending High Def and Super 35 MM sources The Wolf of Wall looks gorgeous at every turn. There is a very strong detail on display here and a sharp sleekness to many of the scenes. Whether we are in the bright offices are out on the way too big super yacht brightness is handled very well. Nothing is oversaturated. The darker interiors all read fine. While The Wolf will not go down as the one with the terribly intricate camera moves there are still several sequences here that are a wonder to behold. Scorsese has become so good at this kind of style that the high points no longer pop out. It’s just his way of telling this kind of story.

Audio – English DTS-HD Master, 5.1 Digital in French and Spanish. Subtitles offered in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish
All dialogue and there is a tremendous amount it here sounds fine. Many times the songs on the soundtrack are played loudly. That works very well with the story. We’ve got a blend of early Chicago Blues, eighties pop and sixties gems. The cool part is not so much how great it is to hear that old song again but in how well they fit the scene, both the rhythm and emotional tone of the song. During the wedding there is a live performance by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. She belts out Goldfinger. Make sure you spot them.

Extras – The Wolf Pack featurette is short but good. It lets us know that there was a lot of improvisation on the set. We learn the idea to do the film came from DiCaprio, much like DiNro had a film called Raging Bull he really wanted to make with Scorsese. It’d be welcome to see more depth on the filmmaking but The Wolf speaks quite well for itself.

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Fever Pitch (1997) Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

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Stars: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ruth Gemmell, Neil Pearson
Director: David Evans
Released by Twilight Time

Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Writer Nick Hornby gives away the store. He reveals how guys think. He gives us a revealing look at how a grown man can come to a place in his life where he has to choose between his love of his sports team and the growing love of a woman. Honrby also tells us how he got that way and it all makes perfect sense. Hornby is best known for High Fidelity which was made into a marvelous movie with John Cusack and Jack Black. His others books include About a Boy, Songbook and A Look Way Down. In 2010 he got to collaborate with Ben Folds releasing an album called Lonely Avenue. He is nuts about music. Nick Hornby has a gift for creating natural believable characters that are driven by intense passions. He seems to like visiting with them at a crossroads in their life. Nick has a great sense of humor and a real appreciation for the things that really matter in life. His stories  get at what drives his lead characters and in the process he reveals how men tick. Should he be doing this? Do we need this kind of self examination? Nick is also a helluva writer. Fever Pitch was his first book. It was turned into this  British movie which fits the story and then later remade and adapted into an American film centered around baseball with Jimmy Fallon in 2005.

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Just like the book the film is divided into chapters with each one starting with the date and team that the English football (soccer) team Arsenal played on that day. Paul played by Colin Firth is a very popular teacher. He coaches the school football(soccer) team. On occasion he leads his students in loud and uproarious chants about his beloved Arsenal. There is a new teacher. She is very pretty and thinks his hooligan ways are obnoxious, especially when the cheering invaders her quiet classroom. She is purposeful and organized while his life careens from good to bad along with the outcome of the games of his team. Opposites begin to attract and the budding love story is on. The match game dates allow the film to go back to visit with Paul as a small child. His parents are divorced and his dad picks him up on the weekend. They struggle to find any kind of common ground with going to the Arsenal games being the one thing they can share. This bond builds to an obscene strength; not the one with Paul and his dad, the one with the football team.

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The story builds toward Paul’s facing the music. Will he put aside his beloved Arsenal team for a more mature life with the lovely Sarah. The title is a nice pun. A fevered pitch is Paul’s state of mind. The pitch is what the playing field is called in soccer. We go back and forth to see young Paul’s infatuation with the team grown into a full blown obsession that involves everyone in his family. Along the way we notice that these poor fans, including Paul’s best friend, have suffered many losses. Arsenal has not won a championship in twenty years. Suddenly Paul has a chance at a new life at the very same time that the team has a chance, a very slim one of regaining the cup for the first time in twenty years.

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Colin Firth does a very nice job with the easy going Paul. Not a care in the world except for match day (game day). Ruth Gemmell gives his girlfriend just the right mix of understanding and resignation with his super fandom. It’s a clever film that has an unusual dilemma played out for us. There are plenty of sports fans whose devotion to the team goes well beyond support. And there are many boys who are not yet men. The film is peppered with great songs by The Pretenders, The Smiths, The Who and The Fine Young Cannibals. Director David Evans captures the feel of the terrace grounds at the games and the all involving physical sway of the crowds there. There is constant singing. We feel everyone cheering, getting angry and almost pathetically hopeful. Evans has many shots where whole sections of the crowd rise up, each wearing the identical expression on their face. He’s got the classroom and school atmosphere down too.

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Honrsby sings to me. I easily get where his characters are coming from and genuinely care where they are going. There is just enough of the yob (ridiculous fan) in me to feel for Sarah and enough of the yob in me to feel for Paul. Fever Pitch is a romantic comedy to be sure but one that will likely find a real resonance with sports fans.

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Video – 1.85:1 Colors and flesh tones all look fine here. Detail is apparent though not overly crisp. There is no crushing of darker colors in the dense crowd scenes at the stadium. The film retains the naturalistic look of the locations. This is a very satisfying looking picture. Don’t expect the picture to pop or anything to overly stand out. The Arsenal team colors show up in some very unexpected places and are fun to spot throughout the film.

Audio – DTS 2.0 in English All dialogue is clear including all the accents.. The rock and pop songs in the soundtrack ring out nicely loud and serve to get your blood going.
Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score, Commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Original trailer.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
Movie – Good / Excellent

Blu-Ray – Excellent

The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

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Stars: Ray Brooks, Jenny Hanley, Luan Peters, Patrick Barr
Director: Pete Walker

Released by Redemption, Kino Lorber

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

After years of making sex comedies filled with brinkmanship Pete Walker turned his attention to the terror genre. This is what he is most known for however he still kept one foot or at the very least a strong toehold in the salacious camp. His films all take place present day and feature a good grasp of current fashions and mores. He always pushed that envelope but purely from a sense of showmanship and to drive attendance. Walker has a workmanlike style that gets the job done but that is not to say that he is without a style and even a nice sense of humor. His work combines the bloody escapades of the French Grand Guignol theatre with the hip swagger of swinging London. He’s also got a good eye for casting and makes enjoyable thrillers or as he calls them terror films. Some are better than others but all are worth a look.

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Several aspiring actors answer and ad that gathers them and a director at a seaside theater that has been closed down for years following a tragedy. They are joined by a successful actress played by Jenny Hanley (Scars of Dracula) who needs to work on her craft and reconnect with her theater roots. The group engages in improvisations to put together a show. There is good detail in the process and the antics of the actors who wind up sleeping in the theater to save money. One of them is a practical joker who stages his stabbing at the beginning of the film. When one of the girls goes missing and someone finds her head and then her body in a guillotine his antics are immediately suspected. Walker builds bonds between the actors and between the actors and the small local community. There is even a retired actor that wants to watch them rehearse. Soon more go missing and bloodied bodies are found.

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Walker’s cast behaves very believably. They’ve all got the groovy approach to theater yet when things get bloody they get good and scared. Walker tosses in equal amount of carnage and romantic mischief though he never misses an opportunity to expose one of the actresses. The mystery of the killer though not to difficult to guess in advance is presented well. There is a plausible backstory with plenty of trauma to prompt the mayhem. Even in his first horror outing Walker handles the bloodshed very well. You can almost hear the word of mouth spreading as theatergoers tell their friend what acts of depravity they witnessed. Those acts are a bit tame by today’s standards but one should have no difficulty getting into the early seventies frame of mind while watching. What pulls you through the narrative is the strength of the cast. They function as a good ensemble. The Flesh and Blood show clearly has more of the former than the later but it makes for a very enjoyable viewing. Walker would go on to do better films but his first foray into the terror camp is still a decent film and definitely required viewing for his fans.

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Video – 1.78:1 The newly mastered HD transfer has strong color and acceptable detail. It is not as clear as one might have hoped in some sequences but that softness may be down to the original look of the photography. It sports a solid if not impressive overall look.

 
Audio – English: LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles offered. All dialogue is perfectly understandable. Effects and music are not as pronounced as we are used to today but again that mix sounds very much like the original mix. It is serviceable if not notable

Extras –Flesh, Blood, and Censorship Pete Walker interview, Trailer, Special 10 minute ending sequence in 3D anaglyph (required red/blue glasses) and stereoscopic (requires 3D TV system). Pete Walker is always a good interview. He is candid and easy to listen to. We get a good background on his roots and how he came to shoot his first horror, or as he says terror film.

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good

Meet Him and Die (1976) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

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Stars: Ray Lovelock, Martin Balsam, Elke Sommer
Director: Franco Prosperi

Released by Raro, Kino Lorber

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Meet Him and Die also known as Risking and by its original Italian title, Pronto ad Uccidere is part of a special breed of crime film known as Poliziotteschi. The term refers to crime films that flourished in Italy starting in the mid sixties and continuing up through the seventies. The influence of American films is very strong yet there is a distinctive home grown style that permeates these pictures. Mike Molloy tells us in the intro that the term poliziottesco refers those specifically made in Italy. There is always a handsome lead who dresses like a fashion model or someone who got his clothes at a golf pro shop. Colors and behavior are garish. Shootouts and car chases abound. This one fulfills all the requirements of the genre and is great fun. As was common a few American stars are added to the cast to help with the box office sales. Martin Balsaom (Psycho) plays a mob boss. Elke Sommer (A Shot in the Dark) is a mysterious seductive blond who becomes the lead’s love interest and more. The lead is played by Ray Lovelock. Ray starred in the acclaimed Poliziotteschi, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976) however he is most recognizable for his role as Chava’s husband in Fiddler on the Roof (1971).

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The film starts off with Ray saying goodbye to his mom and then getting arrested after a botched robbery of a jewelry store. He winds up in prison with some pretty rough characters. After a terrific prison yard fight he gets in good with the bad guys led by Martin Balsam and is soon invited to come along on their break out. He joins the gang and is soon up to his ears in kidnapping, torture, robbery and some spectacular car chasses. We then learn he is an undercover cop and that one of the gang shot his mom and left her paralyzed. Will his need for personal revenge spoil his ability to bring the top crime boss to justice? The film is basically a series of fun action set pieces and scenes of guys in bad suits and polyester pants planning a heist. The plot has some holes but manages to finish on a clever note.

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The car chases are particularly well done in this one. Besides cars the stunt crew makes good creative use of a motorcycle and a truck. Bloodshed is plentiful but handled in more of an action style rather than the serious graphic gunplay that directors like Sam Peckinpah were using at the time.  However the robbery sequence with the guys wearing ski masks  gets played a bit more intensely.  The first action scene with Ray Lovelock fighting a bad inmate in the empty prison yard is a real stand out. The fight choreography is brutal yet keeps up an intensity and variety throughout the long duration of the sequence. Right at the beginning Lovelock waves his shirt like a matador challenging the guy like a bull. That mix of bravado and action is on full display in Meet Him and Die. The pace is quick and whether you watch the Italian or English dub provided here you’ll have a good time with it.

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Video – 1.76:1 The source appears to be in fine shape with good colors. Clarity is as good as that source affords. There is some intentional soft focus and some slight washing out of detail due to the original photography.

 
Audio – PCM Stereo in English or Italian with English Subtitles. The Italian language track will give you a nice feeling of being in Europe while you watch. However if you can recognize Martin Balsam’s voice you’ll want to hear him when he speaks in the English dub. Since the film was recorded without sound with actors voicing the parts afterward both languages are dubbed in after the fact.

Extras – Introduction by Mike Malloy (Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s). Mike gives an enthusiastic appreciation of the film with plenty of background on the picture. He uses a clever gimmick to cut between his desk cameras on this session to liven things up. He overdoes it but that’s forgiven.

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good