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Archive for April, 2014

Final Exam (1981) Blu-Ray Review

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014


Stars – Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Willis Burch, Robert Raynor

Director – Jimmy Huston
Released by Shout Factory
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This is an odd entry in the plethora of slasher films that came out in the wake of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). Like the other formula slashers the cast is made up of young attractive folk, University students this time. We see right from the beginning that there is a killer on the loose targeting those students. However after that first off screen killing we have to wait an hour until there is any more mayhem. That leaves us with sixty minutes of melodrama to wade through. That last half hour is pretty light on the bloodshed and gore that drove many of the others in the genre. The creative kill factor is very low too. The imaginative and more bizarre stalk and kill sequences were consider de rigueur in these films. The most outlandish thing in this one is seeing the killer wrap the hand cables of an exercise machine around someone’s neck and then let go so the weight strangles him. I did not find it very funny nor were the characters all that interesting enough to merit their own hour long episode of hijinks.

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There is a lot made of the Gamma fraternity and their initiation pranks. You know you have a weak slasher film when the most iconic image of the movie is the one with a boy tied to a tree and covered in shaving cream. The one thing that is different here is that we never find out any backstory or reason for the unknown killer to be killing. He’s got no mask or history. We see him from the back as a fleeting figure and then when we finally do get lots of good looks at him, he’s just some big guy.

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There is a strong eighties vibe found here in the clothing, embarrassing hairstyles and affect of some of the cast. There is a cool selection of movie posters on the walls in Radish’s room including Toolbox Murders. Cecile Bagdadi as Courtney turns in a very natural performance. She is very likeable and it’s a wonder why she didn’t find more work. Fans of the film cite the time spent on the characters as being its strength. To me it had none of the believable chatter or interplay between the cast that Halloween displayed so well. For those fans and slasher completists Shout delivers a very strong looking Final Exam. The rest of us can take another test or transfer to stronger stuff.

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Video – 1.77:1.
Touted as a new HD transfer from the original camera negative, the film looks fine. Colors are bright and bold. Detail is good. Any short comings seem to be attributable to the original shooting decisions.

Audio – DTS mono track in English
All dialogue is clear and understandable. And yes there is a simple figure played on a lone keyboard from time to time.

Extras -
Commentary with Cast Members Joel Rice, Cecile Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch’
Interviews Joel Rice, Cecile Bagdadi And Sherry Willis-Burch, Trailer.
All three interviews have the exact same questions presented in a title card format so we see the question and then the cast member answers. Even if it is in keeping with a final exam format it feels forced and makes the interviews too repetitive. Joel Rice, who played Radish, comes off well. He’s fun to listen to.

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

Movie – Fair

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Broadway Danny Rose (1984) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, April 26th, 2014


Stars: Nick Apollo Forte, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Sandy Baron, Joe Franklin
Director: Woody Allen
Released by Twilight Time

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

What kind of man could possibly love both Ingmar Bergman and Bob Hope equally? That is the Woody Allen story.

He started as a comedy writer for TV shows working alongside some of the best comic minds of the era. Allen then became a popular stand up comic. After making four crowd pleasing flat out comedies he took more than a giant step forward with the Academy Award winning Annie Hall (1977). More than a modern neurotic romance the film showed that Allen had developed an incredible vocabulary of filmmaking. Over the next few years his films grew showing a maturity and an obvious thirst to be artistically meritorious. Critics rallied around him while a large portion of the movie going audience wondered why he never made funny ones anymore. Despite the fact that his films did not make a real impact on the box office Woody Allen has made one film a year since then. That is an amazing accomplishment and a killer tribute to the talents of his managers. His films do not require large budgets. They do not flaunt special effects. They do however attract a higher caliber of actor. He also worked on several films in a row after Annie Hall with the gifted cinematographer Gordon Willis. Whether you liked his films or not he was making much more assured ones with a stronger control of the medium.

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Again Woody Allen has made one film a year since the seventies. That is what he does. With Broadway Danny Rose several of the Woody Allens come together to give us a rich funny and moving portrait of low level show biz in New York City. The film starts at the Carnegie Deli. Several comedians are trading stories back and forth as they down endless cups of coffee, nosh on sandwiches and kibitz away the afternoon. It’s important to know that these are not stars. They are not headliners but they have worked for years in the business. This is what they do. Sandy Baron (Hey Landlord TV show) says he has the best Danny Rose story. He tells them to order more coffee, go to the bathroom, whatever you have to do because this is a long one and a real good one. Baron narrates as we meet Danny Rose. This man has the poorest selection of talent that he peddles to faded hotels that cater to an aging population. The one armed tap dancer, the lady who plays songs on glasses filled with water, the penguin that dresses like a Rabbi and the man who folds balloons into animals. He believes in them and is the most devoted personal manager. In this story, the one who has his focus now is Lou Canova. Lou is a washed up Italian singer who had a hit twenty years ago. He’s got a drinking problem and is so insecure that he has to go over his set constantly with his manger.

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Danny Rose gets Lou a miracle. Milton Berle is doing a nostalgia TV show and if he likes Lou at the gig at the Waldorf then he will put him on the show. Lou desperately needs to have his girlfriend there to feel confident. Only Lou is married and pleads with  Danny to be the beard. Danny goes out to New Jersey to get Tina and escort her to the show. Tina has huge sunglasses, hair piled up high on her head and is tearing her place apart as she screams at Lou on the phone. Tina gets advice from a local gypsy fortune teller to make amends with the past and is off to a huge estate in New Jersey. Danny follows her into what looks like a scene from one of the Godfather’s parties and is mistaken for Tina’s boyfriend by a jilted former lover. He meets the large family, has some flirty talks with Tina and then the former lover tries to kill himself with an overdose of iodine. The lover’s brothers who are hitmen for a living grab baseball bats and go after the Rose guy. Danny and Tina flee into the swamps of Jersey but Danny still needs to get Tina to the show so Lou will kill and get the TV special.  Mai Farrow plays Tina with such spirit, style and a great Jersey accent. She’s hysterical and funny in a way you’d never expect from the star of Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The film is freewheeling with lots of laughs. Even while Danny and Tina are on the run in Jersey City there are wonderful compositions with them alongside huge concrete trestles.

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Three is such an informed and affectionate use of locations in New York, too. Danny Rose has an office in a building that should have been condemned. Gordon Willis’ black and white camerawork is stunning. The 102 year old waiters in those faded jackets in the deli look gorgeous. He gets the details in the clothing and the walls. There is even a shot of one of those circular pastry displays. The cakes and pies have probably been stale for weeks but they are beautiful. At one point Danny and Tina run through a warehouse where the Thanksgiving Day Parade floats are stored. It looks surreal. But just when the look of it begins to get too strong an errant bullet lets loose a stream of helium and everyone is yelling in high pitched squeaky voices.

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As the film closes we seen the most pathetic Thanksgiving dinner ever. Danny Rose is handing out Swanson’s turkey TV dinners to his cadre of unbookable acts in his office. Just when you think the scene can’t get any worse the guy with the parrot act walks by, his fork digging into the TV dinner and mumbles that this Thanksgiving is the best one yet. Danny Rose gives and gives. This is what he does. There is a closing shot with cold sleety rain coming down on the dark streets. It may be just turning into show. Gordon Willis makes it look magical as it falls down on Danny Rose and Tina. It’s a long shot. We can’t hear them but we can feel everything we need to.

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Video – 1.85:1 B & W F From that opening shot inside the deli this is one sumptuous looking movie. Sure the credits have some schmutz and speckles on them but once the film starts it looks great. There is a nice layer of grain that is very pleasing. Detail is strong. The grey scale gets a nice workout. The contrast in the images has an artfulness throughout.

Audio – 1.0 DTS in English with subtitles offered in English SDH Dialogue is all front and center and clear as it should be. There is a lot of accordion here in a very playful score. As you watch Lou sings his songs its fun to spot the same drummer right behind him on every song.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature Isolated Music & Effects Track, Trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Mr. Jones (2014) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, April 26th, 2014


Stars -Jordan Byrne, Jon Foster, Stanley B. Herman, Sarah Jones, Ethan Sawyer, Mark Steger, Faran Tahir
Director – Karl Mueller
Released by Anchor Bay

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Be warned now that this movie is shot in a terrible fashion. The main character is making a documentary so we see everything from the point of view of his portable camera. Lots of times he’ll set it down and we get treated to a series of jump cuts of the same shot. Later he devises a gimmick that lets the camera turn around on its holder and give us an extreme close up of his face as he mugs for the camera in various stages of fright. Whatever merits the script and film may have had are killed right there by the decision to present the film in such an annoying and barely watchable image.

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Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) have given up city life to move into a very isolated cabin in the woods. The cabin is actually pretty nicely appointed. After a short while Scott begins to unravel and get on Sarah’s nerves. They fight and quarrel. We learn that he has decided to go off his meds which he promised to keep up with. From this point on the whole film could be seen as a hallucination of his, or not. They find a strange man living nearby who makes twisted wooden scarecrows and displays them in the woods at night. Sarah just happens to have a coffee table edition of an art book about him, Mr. Jones. They think they have discovered the famously reclusive artist. Scott and Penny sneak into his cabin and explore the catacombs of his basement where he makes his creations. They also do a bunch of quick interviews that let us know his work is valued in the millions.

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When Scott steals a scarecrow from Mr. Jones the remaining thirty minutes or so become a wildly incoherent series of images interspersed with close-ups of Scott in various stages of freak out. There are lots of shots of basement tunnels and doors being banged on. Sarah appears in a white dress with bizarre eye make up. The wind blows everything around. There are lots of tree branches and hooded figures seen in firelight. When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999 it captured the public’s fancy and became a runaway hit. It was a very inventive thriller with the Point of View camera center stage as one of the characters made a film within the film. Any film that makes good box office will stimulate imitators but this POV camera thing has really gotten out of hand. Found footage flicks and characters obsessively shooting from cheap HD cameras have given us so few worthwhile movies. There is a distinct lack of imagination here that just renders the viewer numb and bored after a while.

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Video – 1.78:1 Though the colors are fine and details clear so much of the film is presented in blurs and badly framed close ups that the overall effect is disturbing.

Audio – English HD 5.1 with subtitles offered in English SDH and Spanish
There is not much effective use of the soundstage here. Much of the dialogue is hard to hear. Whether that was done to be realistic or not it renders many of the actor’s lines indistinct and often unintelligible.

Extras – none

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

Movie – Poor

Blu-Ray – Poor

More Than The Rainbow (2014) Movie Review

Sunday, April 20th, 2014


Director – Dan Wechsler

Released by First Run Features

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Matt Weber was a taxi cab driver in New York City from 1978 – 1990 who obsessively took pictures as he worked. Along the way he became as is so eloquently put in the film a photographer who drove a taxi. He’s a street photographer. Nothing is posed. He shoots what he finds. As we hear from him and various professional photographers in the film the ratio of good ones to the others is very slim. There is talk of the merits of digital photography compared to the old school print and develop film stock; color versus black and white. What becomes clear though is that aside from all the philosophy and years of experience these folks shoot what interests them. They follow what attracts their eye. One of them candidly admits that he hopes he has enough personality that what interests him interests you. Weber makes an offhand remark that nostalgia is what drives all of Facebook.We see a lot of Matt Weber’s work. Much of it is amazing. Along the way he has chronicled a New York City that has changed. He’s got shots of things that are simply gone. The love of things past, of a rougher more neighborhoody city is very clear in his work. Matt talks a lot. He talks very fast, rapid fire. There are more sophisticated lensmen interviewed. Some are dressed in nice clothes, one in a suit and another accompanied by a woman in a tight bustier. They talk about the craft. Some have an edge but most of them like Zoe Strauss have this powerful connection to the habit of photography that elevates it to something much more. Director Wechsler lets us follow Matt to Coney Island and other spots that he likes to hunt. It’s very interesting to hear him say how he has learned when to back off from taking a shot. Sometimes it is courtesy, others times good old fear of getting his ass kicked by a threatening subject.

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Street photography has its own criteria. Composition, depth, location, subject, emotion and quality of light are all factors. They all talk about the one that got away, just like fishermen. Maybe a subject moved. Maybe someone walked in the way. The near missed are more than plentiful. It was a good choice to hear from others beside Weber. Matt Weber was self taught. He never took a photography class. We see him and an old friend talk about the various colors at the coffee shop they are eating at. Matt is old school. It is hard to tell how much is by habit and how much is by decision. He believes that the magic moment for most photographers was when they swished that piece of paper in the solutions in the dark room and the picture began to magically appear. Matt tells us about the time he saw the most beautiful shot ever of the Empire State building. But he had no film. He now has a habit of carrying a few extra rolls of film with him just in case. Others shoot digitally and never run out. One man shoots HD but eschews the whole notion of Photoshop. This is a very quirky bunch.

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There are nice sequences in the film where we hear the offbeat jazz of Thelonious Monk as we look at these gorgeous pictures. There are a few that Matt took on 9/11. One in particular with a small child in the foreground and the familiar smoke filled towers way in the background offers a different view of the tragic event. At 83 minutes the documentary feels just a bit too long. The last quarter lags a bit. That’s really more a writing and structural problem than any criticism of the subject. So much of what Matt Weber finds interesting strikes a chord. For those who love the City and miss some of those streets this will be a lovely nostalgic tonic. For anyone with any feel for photography it is joyful and very intriguing to spend time with this crew. Matt Weber is an artist, no question. He’s got a real feel for people. He catches some terrific emotions. The purity of his eye, what he finds compelling is infectious. This is a great portrait of street photography. We learn a good deal about this sub genre, spend time with some very creative types and get to see a whole myriad of fabulous stills.

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Video – 1.85:1 (screener) The black and white photography of Weber on display is simply stunning. There is a great deal of other support done in HD and regular film stock. Some of that is of a lesser quality but that does not matter one iota.

Audio – English track (screener) Personally I would have preferred more music from Monk as his offbeat style suits the material so well. Dialogue is clear.

Extras – none. This was a screener so it is unclear at this point if any extras will be included on the DVD, or Blu-Ray release.

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

Movie – Excellent

DVD – Excellent