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Archive for August, 2014

The Battery Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

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Stars – Jeremy Gardner, Adam Cronheim, Niels Bolle, Alana O’Brien
Director, Writer – Jeremy Gardner

Released by Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If you were a baseball pitcher would you still work on your curve ball after the zombie apocalypse? Ben and Mickey are two guys who used to play ball, a catcher and a pitcher. They form what is known in the game as the battery. Jeremy Gardner has made a film that is much more than a new twist on the tiring zombie genre. Though there is a constant threat and we are definitely in the aftermath of civilization what matters most is how these two guys get through the day. Survival is not just food, shelter and safety. We see in a very intimate fashion how Ben and Mickey cope, how they try to keep their spirits up and souls alive. Mickey spends a lot of time with his headphones on listening to CDs. In effect he tunes out the world. Ben is the dominant one. He takes care of the zombies they encounter and keeps them safe. Safety to him is moving. He likens their survival method to that of a shark. They have to keep moving or they will be surrounded by zombies and die. However he answers that first question, why would you bother working on your ball game if the world has gone to hell, with a simple but powerful answer – Because it’s fun.

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The film is about these two men and their travels in the new zombie world. It is far more of a road picture than a zombie film. They hike with their stuffed backpacks. They take breaks to sit on lawn chairs, smoke and fish. They talk a lot and have an easy going banter between then. Ben was the starting catcher on the team while Mickey was a bull pen pitcher, always warming up. We never find out if this was in the pros or a farm league. Fortunately they are no flashbacks. They get along well but can get on each other at times. At one point they find a nice station wagon to drive around in. The few zombie kills are done off screen. This is a very low budget film. It’s a character study that adheres to enough of the horror genre to give the film an urgent narrative. While fooling around on a pair of walkie-talkies they overhear a man and woman talking. Mickey reaches out and is ignored but is finally told to keep away. They are part of something that does not want to meet anyone new. Mickey keeps trying over and over. He can’t let go of the voice he heard. Annie’s voice. To Ben it is clear, they do not want to have anything to do with you. Let it go. Mickey is clearly smitten with the voice and yearns to be a step closer to civilization again.

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The creativity and inspiration in Jeremy Gardner’s script and his direction is readily apparent. Low budget films like this live and die by how they look, how they sound and the acting. Those are things you can’t just dream your way around. They have to be there.  Jeremy and Adam Cronheim are very natural and likeable in their roles. Adam used to play baseball and you can see it in the way he pitches. He also spits well, and frequently. Some of the supporting cast members came from an acting class the director attended. Big credit has to go to director of photography Christian Stella. He gives the actors lots of space in the frame. After all these two are just roaming the countryside with no destination so the camera does not fence them in either. The open spaces in the shots and Stella’s framing let the film breathe. There is a relaxed pace to this road picture. We see several long takes that go on for awhile that work well for the story. When things change so does the way we see things.

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The soundtrack is outstanding. This really sets this film apart. There are some musical cues done on guitar however there are lots of songs. At first we hear songs that are so sparse. There is an acoustic guitar with minimal accompaniment. This matches the loneliness of the two characters. As the film progress and we learn more about them we get to hear more instruments. It’s more than halfway through the film before we hear any vocal harmony. After constantly being on the move, Mickey insists they stay the night in an actual house. Ben takes Mickey’s headphones and CD player away from him. He tells him he has to be alert and be the look out now. Later that night in a glorious match of music and film Ben puts on the headphones and starts to drink. He’s got a pistol in one hand and a bottle in the other. The music blares loudly. Rock Plaza Central plays an infectious song about not laying down and dying. Ben sings along to the music, but what really gets us and makes the scene is the way he dances. He is floppy and loose. He zigs and zags from side to with total abandon. He is so lost in the moment. Forget the zombies, forget the end of the world for awhile. He reminded me of the old guy who dances in the gas station in Deliverance (1972) during the dueling guitar and banjo scene. Finally able to let his guard down for a while, the sense of relief and celebration is palpable.

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After seeing a film like this you want to share it with everyone. Please don’t let the cover or zombie film genre put you off seeing this. This a far from just another zombie film coming down the pike. The Battery is a solid well made road picture about two friends. It is a celebration of everything cheap low budget personal independent film can be.

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They can take our bones and bury them deep under the river
But we’ll still be together and we cannot be defeated
- Anthem for the Already Defeated. Rock Plaza Central

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Video – 2.35:1
Shooting with a rented lens and a professional DSLR Canon 5D camera DP Christian Stella gives the film a remarkably polished look. Colors are all handled well. Detail is good. There is no time at all when the look of the film lets you down. The transfer looks great. The Battery looks heads and tails better than most indie films, regardless of the budget.

Audio – DTS Stereo and 5.1, with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is clear. There is an awful lot of conversation between the two leads to be heard. Sound effects fit well. Again what really stands out is the remarkable soundtrack of folk-ish songs that accompany the film. There is a variety but they all feel of that same  intimate acoustic almost rural style. The highlight is easily the use of Rock Plaza Central’s Anthem for the Already Defeated. It comes at just the right point in the film and you will bop to this one. How they managed to snag as much good caliber music like this for next to no money is amazing.

Extras – Commentary with Jeremy Gardner, Outtakes, Trailer, Rock Plaza Central at the Parlor, Tools of Ignorance: The Making of the Battery.
The 90 minute making of documentary is a surprisingly frank look at the inception, shooting and assembly of the movie. We see tremendous inspiration and enthusiasm. We see lots of mistakes and disappointments. We see many things that break and go wrong. Writer-director and star Jeremy Gardner admits his obsession with the film Jaws and Robert Shaw. DP Stella gives a fascinating account of his camera work and the time he quit the film. If you liked the film at all this will enhance that appreciation several-fold. They made this film for six thousand dollars.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

The Midnight Special DVD Review

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

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Stars -Wolfman Jack, Helen Reddy
Producer – Burt Sugarman

Released by Star Vista Entertainment / Time Life

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The increasing popularity and presence of music in youth culture finally had its own voice on Television. It was able to get its very own foothold late at night on Fridays and Saturdays. That’s late night as in 11:30 PM, 12:30 AM and 1:00 AM in the morning. That’s alright rock and roll stays up late. This was so significant. Legions of kids all across America could stay up late, which most of them did anyway on the weekends and catch the same acts they loved on the radio doing their show live on television. The parents were asleep. This was our time. In Concert was on ABC and started on November 24, 1972. Don Kirsher’s Rock Concert premiered in syndication on September 27, 1973, with a very special show featuring The Rolling Stones. On August 19, 1972 The Midnight Special launched a pilot on NBC. The show then ran until May 1981.

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The hippest DJ in radio was tagged as the show’s iconic host. Wolfman Jack’s radio show was a West Coast thing heard in California but his appearance as a super cool DJ in George Lucas’ huge hit American Graffiti (1973) put him even more squarely on the map. He had a wild mane of carefully coiffed hair, a groovy beard and a gravelly voice that was part Howlin’ Wolf and part late night DJ patter. As show producer Burt Sugarman began to book acts for the show they all loved hanging with him. The whole show had a youthful vibe so different than the previous variety type shows of the past. The other thing that seemed to happen by accident was the diversity of the programming. With a weekly show to do and all these acts having their packed touring schedules Sugarman booked what he could when he could. A hard rock act could be followed by a sensitive singer songwriter then a soul act with fur boots and choreographed dance steps. The by product of that was the smooshing together of the hip underground bands with the more mainstream top 40 styled performers. Though Wolfman Jack introduced and announced the show there would also be a rotating group of other guests host to work with him. Helen Reddy of, “ I am Woman Fame” did that for a year.

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The Midnight Special gave unprecedented exposure to these acts too which translated into more album sales and increased tickets sold at the box office. As you watch these shows the performers that have the better rapport with the audience stick out. Many of the folk acts had that down pat. Jim Croce was instantly likeable. He told stories and put his songs over so well. He built an intimacy with the television audience so easily. John Denver was so affable he could have had his own TV talk show. TV gets you so close. Many of the acts connected by the simple virtue of their excellent singing and musicianship. The Doobie Brothers, Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates, Fleetwood Mac, America, Linda Rondstadt, War, The O’Jays, Maria Muldaur, Gordon Lightfoot, Billy Preston, Curtis Mayfield, The Bee Gees, Gladys Knight and The Pips, and Charlie Rich all gave terrific performance. If you have no idea who this country guy they used to call the Silver Fox is, Charlie Rich just may knock you flat. There are plenty of others that will resonate stronger due to your taste or whether they strike that nostalgic chord just right.

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Each disc has several episodes and a few bonus features. You do not see any complete episodes. What you get is the airdate, credits, Wolfman’s set up, and then a selection of songs from that show. You can use the menu to select individual songs but in many cases you have to back it up a bit to make sure you catch the introduction. Some of the ones with Wolfman are classic and not to be missed. Occasionally the host will interact with an act. Helen Reddy sings To Love Somebody with the Bee Gees revealing a side of her singing you don’t normally associate with her. Wolfman hams it up with some of the acts. It’s fun to see them play along. He balances the schtick with a genuine affection for the music nicely. It seems that whenever anyone got a Gold Record they received the actual framed item on the show so you see quite a lot of that. We often get reminded that most of the songs are million sellers. Well before the internet this show and Rolling Stone Magazine were about the only kind of national coverage these act got.

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There is one episode that was not filmed on the regular soundstage. Marvin Gaye’s show at an Atlanta Stadium was taped for a September 1974 airing. It is always a treat to see him perform but this show has its rough spots. Marvin comes out like a prize fighter surrounded by an entourage that leads him to the stage. On stage he’s got several dozen people. He says that his voice is hoarse that night. He does Let’s Get it On well but the tempo is a bit rushed. While he sings What’s Going On some guy in a suit keeps trying to talk to him. That’s very distracting. The episode has a sweet interview with Marvin and his mom. There is also a bit where he uses that gentle voice of his to try to con producer Sugarman out of some free Midnight Special jackets.

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This is a great collection of seventies music done live. There are instances where I detected some sweetening but that’s okay. This was an especially strong decade for music. The Midnight Special is a veritable cornucopia of hits – top forty, hard rock, disco, folk, soul, funk, hip underground stuff. They mixed it up real good. If your taste leans to one style of music you’re very libel to catch some other stuff you may enjoy quite a bit. If not, hit that remote. As with many collections like this if you intend to sit down for a while with the set the remote is your very good friend.

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The Midnight Special is available in a One Disc, Six Disc and 11 Disc Collector’s Edition. The extras included will vary with each configuration. The Six Disc set was seen for this review.

Video – 1.33:1
Live Television lighting, especially for color in the seventies could be harsh.
When the light was bright and straight on it tended to flare back at you giving some performers unintentional hot spots on them. The set designers used to a lot of lighting units on the sets. Strings and columns of lights bulbs to dress up the little stages were common. Sometimes there was a huge lighted logo backdrop or even a projections. Generally when there was a lot of light it tended to flare and distort. However when they toned down the lights and went for a more dramatic effect it could look very good. Often the side angle shots are much clearer. While the elements are in good shape the image varies from too soft to okay to quite nice. There is also a lot of use of the star filter which when it catches a light pointed at it will divide it into neat lines like the points of a star.

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Even though my amplifier detected a stereo signal this is basically a mono track. It’s pretty clear though it does not have the separation or depth of true stereo. All of the stage announcements and banter are clear. The music comes across nicely, as it did then.  It was made for TV sets which featured one single small mono speaker. That was the dominant style for many years and it has its virtues. One of the show’s competitors used to do some simulcasts that would have you turn down the sound on the TV and use the sound from a local FM radio station that would carry the show. If you left the sound up on the TV it would be immediately obvious when they went to a commercial break and you’d hear two different advertisements at once.

Extras – The History of The Midnight Special, Star-Studded Stage Fashion, Wolfman at Midnight, No Safety Net: Live on TV,I am Woman: Helen Reddy as Host. Interviews with Alice Cooper, Loggins & Messina, Peter Frampton.  These are all lots of fun. The featurette on Wolfman Jack is very informative. Alice Cooper and Peter Frampton come off very well in their interviews with good recall and some strong stories. The fashion one is a hoot.

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

DVD – Good

TV Series Collection – Excellent

Sanctuary Quite a Conundrum (2012) DVD Review

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

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Stars -Sasha Ramos, Erin Nicole Cline, Emily Rogers, Joe Coffey, Anthony Rutowic
Director – Thomas L. Phillips

Released by Midnight Releasing in August 2014

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

It’s tough to even give this one a chance based on the first two scenes. The opening features an overweight man with a patch over one eye humping away at an attractive, younger and disinterested girl dressed in her bra underneath him. We see the back of his head and her face as she just tears into him, making fun of his inability to get her off. She lays insult after insult on him till he leaves. The next sequence has this girl Mimi and her BFF friend Tabitha or Tabs as she calls her chattering away and behaving like two girls on a particularly banal Reality TV show. Most viewers would likely give up by this point or change the channel . It does get different though. Not necessarily better.

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Mimi, her little sister and Tabs invite three boys over for a pool party that night. The guy from the first scene comes over and stands naked before them. He blames Mimi for everything and then shoots himself in the head. He falls into the pool – fat, naked with blood coloring the water. Not a pretty sight. The evening gets worse. The dead guy’s wife comes over, yells at Mimi and then winds up unconscious and bleeding all over the floor. One of the guys leaves. The youngest boy who was invited over by Mimi’s sister gets drunk for the first time, plays drums and gets an enormous bodily arousal that the girls make fun of. The third guy turns out to be a psycho and starts breaking necks. The first guy returns to save someone and then there is a murder. For a finale the young guy’s mom doing an impersonation of Carrie’s religious fanatic mom comes back to do some kind of baptism in the pool with a dead guy.

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The acting is pretty terrible all the way around. The blocking of the actors and photography are unimaginative. If there was any intended humor it did not come through to me. This is a poorly written and directed film. Thomas Phillips wrote, directed and shared the DP duties with another. The cover states, “Clerks Meets Scream”. It has none of the humor or clever writing that Kevin Smith displayed with his debut. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with Wes Craven’s Scream. With the advent of affordable HD cameras virtually eliminating the cost of film stock and developing the filmmaking process has become very accessible to a much wider group of would be filmmakers. However the talent and inspiration that drives a good idea and script never cost low budget filmmakers anything in the first place. It’s easy to forgive any budgetary shortcomings for a good film. But no amount of money will make up for bad writing and dumb ideas.

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Video – 1.78:1 Anamorphic
The transfer by Midnight Releasing appears to be fine. It’s not their fault that the source material is just dull and flat looking at every turn. The 2012 film runs 82 minutes and is unrated as it never had a theatrical release.

Audio – Dolby Digital 2.0, Subtitles offered in English SDH
Dialogue is mostly clear. The music and effects don’t contribute very much to the film

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Commentary with Director & Cast , Hollywood Screening Q&A with Writer/Director & Cast, Gag Reel . The “Hollywood Screening“ featurette is a home movie shaky cam bit with everyone fumbling to be funny.

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

DVD – Fair

Movie – Poor

Man Hunt (1941) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

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Stars – Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall
Director – Fritz Lang

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

What would you do if you had Adolph Hitler in the sights of a rifle as World War II was beginning. How about if the man who offered you that chance was a celebrated German film director who was told he will now be making films for Der Fuehrer by none other than Joseph Goebbels, the Minster of Propaganda. Fritz Lang did indeed flee Nazi Germany. The Goebbels story’s veracity has been debated but it is such a good legend it may as well be true.

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Fritz Lang was an incredible filmmaker who excelled at many genres and styles. His early silent Metropolis (1927) is legendary. He made M (1931)with Peter Lorre which for my money was the film that laid the groundwork and influence for the Film Noir movement years later. After he fled to America he started over and made a series of classic Film Noirs, some thrilling adventures and toward the end of his career he made a pair of Indian adventure films whose action sequences are very much in the Raiders of the Lost Arc style. He is also known for a slew of Dr. Mabuse films. Mabuse was a criminal mastermind like you’d find in a particularly dark Batman adventure. Lang made four films that feature the vicious underworld of the Nazis but this one was made before America had entered WWII. You can easily hear him ringing the alarm bell about Nazi Germany. This one and several others made at that time served to recruit the emotions of Americans prior to the outbreak of World War II. It is worth considering that time period when you see this film and allow it that context.

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Walter Pidegon plays a very well to do and sophisticated English sportsman. As the film opens we see him sneak into the woods surrounding an estate and hunker down in the underbrush with a high powered rifle. He waits and when he gets Hitler in the cross hairs he pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. Then he loads a bullet but before be can complete the action he is captured. George Sanders as the Major leads the interrogation. Pidgeon insists he was only doing a “Sporting Stalk”. He explains that killing no longer has any thrill for him, it is the hunt that truly challenges him. Once he knows he could do it, he doesn’t have to. Sander’s Major is also a big game hunter and he knows the other’s reputation as a celebrated hunter. There is a brutal off screen beating. Pidgeon refuses to sign a confession that says he was working for England to assassinate Hitler. They take him to the woods and toss him over a cliff. Somehow he survives the fall. The Major tracks him through the woods but he gets away. It is interesting that despite both lead characters being big game hunters in Africa the real man hunt takes place in an urban jungle.

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Once back home in London Pidgeon is a man on the run. He is aided by a young girl played by Joan Bennett. She takes an instant liking to his charming manners and cultured ways. Just like Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935) and many other films after we have the guy and girl on the run as they fall in love. She even teaches him how to eat fish and chips with his fingers in a nice turnabout on the doughnut dunking scene from it Happened One Night (1934). Lang creates a dark and disturbing landscape on the streets and alleyways. John Carradine barely speaks as the tall man in pursuit of his prey. In what is the film’s most thrilling set piece he follows the two into the underground (subway). They dodge though the crowds with Pidgeon taking a quick staircase deeper into the system. When it is just the two of them on the desolate platform, Carradine pulls a sleek sword out of his cane. Pidgeon takes to the tracks and as Carradine follows brandishing the weapon we are treated to some of the best noir style photography. The concrete columns and sinister arches all seem to trap the two of them. It is a masterful sequence.

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Bennett is endlessly perky. Throughout the picture when Pidgeon tries to leave her she pouts and cries. He treats her like a daughter totally clueless to the fact that she is coming on to him at every chance she gets. In the book the film was based on her character was a prostitute which would have worked better. Here there is only one scene when he learns how she feels. They embrace on a fog lit bridge but their kiss is interrupted before it begins. There is an arrow pin that he buys her for her beret hat. The arrow pin figures very practically into the film which works well and in another way which is pure rah-rah propaganda which also works in its own way. Fritz Lang had a large movie vocabulary and was very particular about the way he expressed himself in his films. Many have dubbed him a demanding and demeaning task master. Despite all that he and actress Joan Bennett clicked. She gave what was what to me her best performance in Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945). They became business partners in several of his film that Joan performed in. Each time out other than watching her character and acting he made very sure that she looked stunning. You can see that in every shot in Man Hunt Bennett is lit like an angel.

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While this mix is a bit off balance in the tones between the light romantic adventure and the darker thriller aspects there so much of Man Hunt that works wonderfully. It is a delight to watch George Sanders spar and toys with his prey, a fellow big game hunter. His delivery, the way he forms his words and the subtle insinuations in his voice are endlessly amusing. It is fun to see a very young Roddy McDowell as the cabin boy who helps out the hero. Lang makes the most out of the cityscapes and sets. He creates a veritable maze out of the streets that always threaten to close in on Walter Pidgeon as he attempts to elude his pursuers. The use of shadows to convey information and to set an atmosphere is outstanding. For me the scenes in the city are much better realized that the few scenes set in the forest. Even though the pair on the run are miss-matched and you may not quite buy their budding romance there is plenty of personality in Joan Bennett’s performance to win you over.

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Video – 1.33:1
The black and white photography looks very good . There are some instances where it could clearly be better but it remains effective on the whole. Detail gets short changed on occasion with some softness present. There was a point about a third way into it when the contrast and detail seemed to improve. That may be down to the fact that once the film moves into the urban setting Lang is able to use a much more consistently controlled lighting. Those nighttime city exteriors and creepy subway interiors simply look much better than the set created outdoor forest scenes.

Audio – 1.0 DTS-HD Mono with subtitles offered in English SDH
The quality of the voices are captured very well on this track. I do not know for sure but the instances with George Sanders speaking German sound absolutely flawless. When John Carradine has to deliver a few lines in German it is clearly dubbed. That’s not a knock but a compliment to how good all the different accents come across on the sound track. At one point when Pidgeon takes Bennett into a shop to buy her a pin the shop owner’s voice is momentarily threatening just by the sound of his accent. Also worth noting is how effective the off screen beating of Pidgeon is communicated by only the sound effects at one point. This is a solid mono track in all aspects.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, Commentary with Author Patrick McGilligan, Rogue Male: The Making of Man Hunt, Trailer, Liner notes by Julie Kirgo
Rogue Male is a short but interesting series of interviews with noted film historians who place the film in proper context and give some nice bits of info on Fritz Lang

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent