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Archive for October, 2014

The Wonder Years Complete Series (1988 – 1993) DVD Review

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

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Stars – Fred Savage, Josh Saviano, Danica McKellar, Dan Lauria, Alley Mills
Creators – Neal Marlens and Carol Black

Released by StarVista Entertainment / Time LIfe

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

When a TV series makes its debut following The Superbowl is it guaranteed an incredible lead in audience. Also it had better be good. The Wonder Years premiered in 1988 with an affectionate and humorous look at growing up in the mid sixties. There series hit just the right chord with baby boomers and an even stronger chord with those who were parents. The problems and issues facing young Kevin Arnold in middle school translated easily to people of any era. The show was set in any town USA though Kevin wore a New York Jets jacket. We got to see him struggle with his first kiss in an embarrassing yet charming episode. The show also integrated the issues of the era including The Vietnam War, Civil Rights and the burgeoning Women’s Movement. The first season ended with the news that the kid next door, the really cool one, had been killed in Vietnam just weeks after he left.

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The six seasons follow Kevin (Fred Savage) from middle school through high school. Most episodes center around him, his best friend Paul (Josh Saviano) and Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). The show was blessed with three child actors who came across as very natural. Kevin’s older brother Wayne is a noogie dealing obnoxious jerk. His older sister is a gorgeous flower child who spouts an endless flow of hippie jargon. Both of them are drawn very broadly but the show is seen from Kevin’s point of view and that is how it must have looked to him. Dan Lauria plays his dad. One of the strongest episodes of the entire series, “My Father’s Office” follows Kevin as he visits that office to find out just what dad does all day. The father is presented as this hulk that comes home from work drained. The whole family is afraid to even speak to him. He is a gruff and all powerful figure. To see the human side of this adult man revealed to his son is surprisingly tender and moving. His mom is played by Alley Mills as a typical housewife whose impression of herself slowly awakens during the course of the show.

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Innocence is what The Wonder Years does best. Everything is seen through Kevin’s eyes. We see his painful growth as he falls in and out of love with Winnie Cooper. He seems to never be sure of himself, having to bounce life strategies off of his friend Paul. His struggles with life, school and his parents drive most of the shows. There are times when we see poor Kevin running straight into a brick wall. In a stroke of genius the show deflects any overload of embarrassment by having Kevin’s older self deliver a voice over  looking back and commenting on these instances with an amusing hindsight. This also prevents the chance of viewers overdosing on too much sweetness. The innocence never gets too saccharine thanks to Daniel Stern’s marvelous line readings. His voice is such an integral part of this show. Stand by Me (1986) employed a similar technique with Richard Dreyfuss looking back on a nostalgic summer in his life. With Danny Stern on the track every week that voice takes on a strong character able to give us that unique vantage point on Kevin’s current predicaments.

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The show was held up for many years apparently due to having to iron out the agreements to use the large amount of songs that were featured on the soundtrack. We get to hear a nice collection of rock, pop and soul specific to the era. All the tunes are recognizable big hits that were ubiquitous on the radio back then. Some of the choices may seem a bit obvious for a few given scenes but they work so well you’ll sit back and grin despite yourself. They serve to anchor the series in that sixties time frame so well. Kudos must also be paid to the musicians that contributed the incidental music. There is a pretty acoustic guitar theme that seems to follow Winnie around. The Wonder Years is an entirely pleasing experience that comes heartily recommended. The writing is so strong in almost every instance. Sure you’ll find a few that fall short but the vast majority of the series is written, produced and directed with a very sure set of hands.

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Video – 1.33:1
The episodes are framed just like they should be as it was originally shown. This show was shot with a single camera, very much like many of the hour long dramatic and action shows of the era. Sitcoms usually had that glossy super bright sheen. It was a great decision to shoot this half hour shown in the film format. It gives it some justifiable weight letting it stand apart as more of a drama/comedy mix. However the look of the series as it is presented here is bound to be a disappointment. Many scenes have a murky look. There is a great deal of softness. The image is just plain weak in many instances. Granted this is a DVD but the vast majority of TV shows from that era and long before look so much better than this. The Wonder Years was a very high profile show that was made with the utmost of care. It is hard to accept that these were the best materials available. If that was the best that was offered some work surely needed to be done.
It is unfortunate that so recent a show has been presented this badly. It is still entirely watchable. In an ironic bit of nostalgia, the episodes look just like you were watching them on TV when the show first aired. It is lovely to have this show in its entirety and with the songs intact. However the viewing experience is a let down, not mater how you slice it.

Audio – English as originally presented with no subtitles offered.
The dialogue is all presented well. The original songs from the era sound nice in the mix.
The acoustic guitar music used for Winnie’s theme reminds me a whole lot of Embryonic Journey by Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane. Some of the background music is in fact acoustic renderings of passages of the songs in the show. It’s a great soundtrack that is loads of fun. Joe Cocker’s version of the Bealtes’ With a Little Help from my Friends becomes a friendly intro to the show that you look forward to each time. It is set against that home movie styled montage.

Extras – There is a veritable boatload of extras. Some are specific to a season while other fall into the overall look back category. The series regulars come off relaxed and happy to share stories about the show. They share what they did with their lives after the show and reflect on their collective experience as child stars in show business. There are a lot but all of these extras are enjoyable. To hear from Neal Marlens and Carol Black the show’s original creators is a nice treat. They knew what they were doing and had a very clear vision of what they wanted the show to be.

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Packaging -
The whole series comes in a miniature school locker. The seasons fit into two large notebook styled heavy cardboard booklets. Though the sleeves that house the actual discs are slick it takes a bit of patience and skill to remove them. Rotate rather then pull. There is a detailed episode guide slipped into each note book with plenty of pictures. There is also a school composition book with more info on the show. You even get magnets to decorate the metal locker with. It is a very classy presentation.

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

DVD – Fair / Good

TV Series – Classic

Kingpin (1996) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

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Stars – Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Bill Murray, Vanessa Angel
Directors- Peter & Bobby Farrelly

Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Farrelly brothers scored very big with their third film There’s Something About Mary (1998) and found a real groove with their style of “bad taste” comedy. Kingpin is their second film. They are not quite there yet but the casting helps a great deal. This is a bowling comedy that hangs a lot of “bad taste” jokes on what is basically a simple sports comeback story. Woody Harrelson plays Roy Munson an up and coming bowler with a real gift for the game who has both his dreams and his hand crushed. Years later after he has given up any hopes of ever playing again he finds a bowling prodigy in Randy Quaid. The only trouble is that Ishmael is Amish and not allowed to bowl for dollars. Roy must figure a way to get him off the farm and on his way to the big million dollar game in Las Vegas.

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Along the way they pick up a girl in trouble, Claudia played by Vanessa Angel who they both take a liking to. The seasoning on the road makes Ishmael a better player and creates a bond between the three. The other main character in the story is Big Ern. Bill Murray loads on the vain and smug qualities he does so well. The script does not have any particularly funny lines or stand out sequences. Much of the humor in the film comes from the natural comedic personalities of Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson. Murray has a great time with this king of the bowling alleys. He’s even got a clear bowling ball with a flower embedded in it.

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The narrative in as much as it is a parody owes much to The Hustler (1961) and The Color Of Money (1986) . We have the same gifted player who gets his hand broken. Many years later he develops a young talent only to use the experience as a way to forge his own comeback. The fact that Fast Eddie Felson had to meet up with Minnesota Fats again at the end of The Huslter is the same reason that Roy has to play Big Ern again. That was a drama and this is a comedy, yet there is a great deal of melodrama that pushes the narrative along in Knigpin. It’s a fun film, not a great comedy by any means. Bill Murray gets a lot of screen time and he fills it with some amusingly “tasteless” improvisation.

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Video – 2.40:1
Both the original 113 PG-13 rated cut and the 117 Min R rated edition are offered.
Colors are fine. Detail is decent. Although there is nothing that draws any real attention to the cinema photography the pictures looks fine throughout.

Audio – English 5.1 DTS , French DTS 2.0 , Spanish 2.0 with subtitles offered in English, English SDH, French Spanish.
All dialogue is easy to hear. Music and effects are mixed in nicely. You don’t get much activity in the subwoofer or the surround speakers as much of the dialogue heavy film is settled appropriately in the center.

Extras – commentary by directors Peter & Bobby Farrell, New- Kingpins: Extra Frames With The Farrelly Brothers, Trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Good

Werewolf Woman (1976) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

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Stars – Annik Borel, Howard Ross
Director – Rino Di Silvestro

Released by Raro Video

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Exploitation? Sexploitation? Werewolfsploitation? Were does one begin with this film?  This is a somewhat obscure Italian film that was released under the original title La Lupa Mannara. It has popped up here and there in a dubbed version. The story recounted in the promotion for the new edition is that Quentin Tarantino selected it to be shown at one of his festivals. He had never seen it and was always intrigued by it. He was subsequently so surprised and amused that he chose to always include a “secret screening” surprise title at all of his future events. Those going into this expecting any kind of horror film about werewolves and wolf men will get quite a shock. The film opens with the lovely Annik Borel dancing nude in the forest. She then sprouts some poorly done fur patches, a few fangs and a pair of ridiculous looking rubber elongated nipples. There is some confusing mayhem with a victim then a chase by townspeople. Later she wakes up. Her father is concerned that she has had recurring nightmares since she was raped. He takes her to an institution where she dreams a lizard walks all over her and has a fling with one of the nurses.

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There is an abundance of nudity throughout the film. Annik enjoys then attacks every man she meets. She howls and screams in an annoying fashion. There is blood shed aplenty but nothing well done. The liner notes that accompany the film would have you look at this as a psycho drama. The whole affair is pretty confusing. In between the exploitive scenes we get to hear a few doctors and her father chatter away. This is Euro-sleaze. It is trashy and exploitative. It does not exhibit a lot of style or creativity. The attraction rests mostly on Annik Borel’s shoulders. If you like them you’ll enjoy the film. There is not much else to it.

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Video – 1.85:1
At first blush the film is bright and very clear. Colors are strong and the source material appears to be in very good shape. As the film goes on the presentation appears to have been scrubbed just a bit too much for most tastes. It has that too clear look, although it is perfectly watchable.

Audio – Original language Italian with English subtitles or with a dubbed English track.
Either track is dubbed, rather in Italian or in English. The Italian track gives the film a much better feel.

Extras – Interview with director Rino Di Silvestro (in Italian, subtitles in English), Trailers, Booklet with essay.

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

Blu-Ray – Good (compared to previous versions)

Movie – Poor

Dolls (1987) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

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Stars -Guy Rolfe, Hilary Mason, Ian Patrick Williams, Stephen Lee, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Cassie Stuart, Bunty Bailey, and Carrie Lorraine

Director – Stuart Gordon

Released by Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Due to a torrential storm two diverse groups are forced to seek shelter in a dark and mysterious house. A young girl, her father and the step mother from hell make the trek to the house when their car breaks down. Along the way the mother tosses the little girl’s teddy bear into the woods because she thinks it slows her down. The couple berates and yells at her along the way. On entry they meet the old couple that owns the place. The elderly man is played by Guy Rolfe (Mr. Sardonicus). His wife is played by Hilary Mason who was the essence of creepy as the blind psychic in Don’t Look Now (1973). They are splendid in these roles; every so inviting, ever so frightening. Rolfe who makes dolls lends Judy the little girl a Punch doll to keep her company while they stay overnight. They are joined by another wayward trio, Two over the top punk girls and the all too trusting man they intend to relieve of his wallet once he goes to sleep. That man is also very sweet. As he tours the toy maker’s shop with Judy he remarks that it reminds him of all the toys he had as a kid, even some he forgot he had. The toy maker assures him that they have not forgotten him.

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That is where the lines are drawn. There are those that believe in the magic of toys and those they think they are just silly. The entire house is full of dolls. Clearly Judy and this man share a fondness for the dolls with the elderly couple. The others don’t and they will die one by one during the night. The quality of the dolls is wonderful throughout the film. Naturally they attack. They brandish little hatchets and knives. At one point two of them work a two handed saw back and forth on one of the step mother’s ankles. There are columns of toy soldiers who fire their muskets in unison. When we first see these dolls the only movements we can detect are the eyes that shift to follow people. They are operated like marionettes in an intriguing fashion. There is much bloodshed, too. Despite this air of creepy and horrific goings on there is a definite charm to this film. Guy Rolfe is amazing in his role. He evokes a pleasant Vincent Price kind of elegance.

 

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It is simple and pretty short film. There are no real surprises. However Stuart Gordon who is best know for Re-Animator (1985) and a host of very well done horror films comes from a theatre background. His first film was Bleachers Bums (1979). That was based on a play about a group of folks that inhabit the same baseball bleachers every Cubs game. It is funny and charming. This is a horror film no doubt but it is very easy to fall under its sense of charm and sweetness. The manipulated dolls are all fascinating to watch. There is abundant detail in their carved facesand intricate costumes. The battles they have with the adults are lots of fun. The ones they set upon clearly have it coming to them. Dolls is a decent cut above your average horror film. It you’re the type to fall for its charm then it is a nice little gem of a film to discover.

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Video – 1.78:1
Colors looked good. Black levels were strong. There was a good amount of clarity though the image still retains its origins as a film source. Very pleasing.

Audio – DTS 5.1 & DTS 2.0 with subtitles offered in English
Dialogue is clear and understandable. The music and effects tracks are all mixed in well. Guy Rolfe has a lovely texture and tone to this voice in this that comes across nicely.

Extras -
New -Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls, Commentary with director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha, Commentary with cast members Stephen Lee, Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy Gordon, and Carrie Lorraine Storyboard-to-Film Comparison, Trailer, Photo Gallery
The new documentary has lots of good information. Director Gordon is always fun to listen to,

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent