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Archive for January, 2015

Breaking Away (1979) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

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Stars – Dennis Christopher, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie, Paul Dooley, Dennis Quaid
Director – Peter Yates

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The film opens with four kids who have just graduated high school hanging out in their small town with no particular place to go. They seem rather intent on just whiling away the hours of the rest of their lives. The town of Bloomington Indiana is defined by the sprawling University campus and a rock quarry. There is a huge schism between the college kids and the Cutters as they call the townies. However there is one thing that will snap these kids out of their doldrums. One of the foursome, Dave (Dennis Christopher) is completely obsessed with Italian bicycle riders. That he rides extremely well makes sense but he has taken to affecting an Italian accent, attitude and style of dress. He addresses his parents with all kinds of adopted Italian sounding phrases. His complete devotion to this drives his parents nuts. Paul Dooley as the dad has had enough but has no idea what to do about it. The mom (Barbara Barrie) plays it off as a phase but offers to strangle him in his sleep if that will help. She is so sweet but with a killer deadpan sense of humor.

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As we follow these kids around we see one of them Jackie Earl Haley being dropped off to start a new job at a gas station. Right after he gets out of the car he quits before he even starts. He jumps back in the car with his friends amidst rounds of applause. In between the aimless adventures we go on these exceptional bike rides with Dave. He rides like the wind while Italian classical music fills the speakers. Director Peter Yates knows how to move action along. These scenes are exhilarating to watch. When Dave catches up with a truck on the highway he paces himself behind it then pours it on. The driver extends his hand outside the window holding up four fingers then five to indicate his speed: forty then fifty miles an hour! We forget that that is likely impossible and get caught up with his competition with the truck.   The driver holds up five fingers, withdraws his hand then returns with one finger up. We grin as we watch him surge past the truck. Dave is lost in the Italian skies that send their sunshine down over him. He’s gonna transcend this town and become a bicycle racing star in Italy.

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Steve Tesisch won the Oscar for his screenplay that balances humor and drama, small town attitudes and big time dreams. Apart from the marvelous writing the film has a cast that plays it just right, keeping things from becoming too saccharine. Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern so young in these roles are natural and completely believable. They have their feet on this dusty town ground while Dennis Christopher turns in an inspired performance as the bicycle riding dreamer.  He even pretends to be an Italian exchange student to court one of the unreachable coeds at the University. The film builds to the climatic team bicycle race against the University guys that have put them down throughout the picture. The foursome have T shirts that read Cutters.   At first this comes off as a taunt to the college kids. But as the Cutters race we can see them no longer feeling trapped in this town but proud of it. They ride right through that defeatist attitude. No this is not Steve McQueen shifting up the gears on his Mustang in Bullit but damn if Peter Yates doesn’t get that same kind of adrenaline rush from both the action and the drama. Breaking Away is a deserved classic in the Coming of Age genre. It sits comfortably alongside Stand by Me, The Breakfast Club, My Girl, Mud, and many others.  It was a brilliant conceit to wrap all this growing up around the cock-eyed dreams of a small town kid who wants to ride his way out of town on a bicycle, Italian style.

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Video – 1.85:1
The film is in good shape. The exterior shots of Dennis Christopher riding his bicycle around town look terrific. There are times when the colors take on a nice subtlety. Not everything is bright sunshine. The occasional softness takes away from the detail at moments. Some darker scenes are a bit weak. Those are minor issues in an overall very nice looking presentation.

Audio – DTS-HD MA 1.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
The mix is very straight forward. Dialogue is all clear and easy to understand, including Dennis Christopher’s put on accent. Even in the mono format the feeling that the well chosen classical pieces bring to the bicycle riding sequences is sometimes breathtaking.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, Commentary with Actor Dennis Christopher and film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Road to Adulthood trailer, Academy Booster trailer, Original Theatrical Trailer, Dennis Christopher’s Fellini Story (audio only)
Dennis Christopher tells a terrific story about stumbling onto a movie set of the great director Fellini. He evens gets a bit part in the film, Roma.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Video Nasties The Definitive Guide: Part 2 DVD Review

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

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Director – Jake West

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

For anyone who enjoys or collects horror films, cult movies and anything that might be classified as exploitive this is a chilling look at an era in England when a government agency exercised extreme levels of censorship on the home video marketplace. This may have a nostalgic vibe for those who grew up there but for the rest of us this is another chance to get a close up look at the Video Nasty days that we hear so much about. Severin presents the second volume in a series. The set has three discs. The first one is a documentary feature by Jake West, Video Nasties: Draconian Days. Through a series of vintage interviews and TV programs we meet James Ferman who headed up the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) from 1975 – 1999. His duty was to classify a huge backlog of films as well as anything new that wanted to be made available through the vast network of video rental shops that were all the rage then. The board establishes rankings that indicate what age level a film is appropriate for. Soon scenes are cut and edits must be made to earn these classifications. Without that classification the videos are simply not allowed to the distributed. Then certain studios and distributors are told that certain titles should not be submitted for review at this time. Just how far was this man‘s reach permitted to extend?

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Where are told about his education sessions when Ferman would show a series of outlandish film clips featuring all kinds of depravity. Then he would say those are the edited versions. Here are the original scenes. Whole rooms of people would get on board with his crusade to protect the people from this outrageous material. What if children saw this? Later in the film we see a government man and his crew going into someone’s home and confiscating his VHS duplication set up. Then this poor man says to the official does this mean you are going to take my film collection, too? And they do just that; away it goes stuffed into large plastic bags like so much trash to be burned. Film collecting and trading became more than forbidden fruit. At trade shows and conventions dealers tables are seized and again the trash bags of VHS tapes are carried away. Getting that coveted copy of a banned or unclassified film just might be against the law. Naturally the original Video Nasties list and the second group of Section Three titles became a must see list for fans. More than recommended titles these became a rite of passage for many fans.

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Though we fully expect that much of the footage will be catch as catch can there are a few choices that mar the presentation. When we first see that instantly recognizable video tracking noise it is fun, but the gimmick gets repeated way too often. Decent images are altered to give them an old school bad tape effect. Again it is neat the first time but gets overused. The narrative of the documentary could be clearer. For those of us that don’t know the details a host or someone to lead us through all these incredible vintage clips would have helped. Still so much of the footage, particularly that of James Ferman and those that talk about him is very compelling.

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Discs two and three contains an A- Z collection of introductions and trailers for 82 films that were nominated on the Section Three List by the Obscene Publications Act. These titles were apt to be seized and destroyed if found at a rental shop, trading event or even a personal collection. Each film gets a niece treatment. A revolving group of historians and experts give the background and an appreciation of the title. We then get the trailer. Many of these video essays are very informative and will make you want to track the film down for a viewing. In almost every case the expert is sitting in front a massive wall of shelves containing some of their collection. It’s fun to pick out recognizable titles on the spines. Some of the more garish VHS covers are also tucked away on those shelves. The group includes Kim Newman, Alan Jones, and Stephen Thrower among others. I always get a kick out of Kim Newman in his Yancy Derringer western style vest. He knows his stuff and is very entertaining. Alan Jones gets high marks too for his presentations. I was surprised to see some of the titles in this group. Kudos to whoever got a hold of one of the original vomit bags that were given out at American showings of Mark of The Devil. Discs two and three can be an overload if taken in too large a dose. Better to dole them out according to the label’s recommended dosage.

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Video – Widescreen Trailer Introductions and material of various aspect ratios

Audio – Dolby Stereo

Extras – The Selection Menu on discs 2 and 3 gives you titles arranged on a shelf like a VHS collection. You highlight the one you want to see. Very clever.

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

DVD – Fair/ Good

Movie – Good

The Bride Wore Black (1968) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

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Stars – Jeanne Moreau, Michel Bouquet, Jean-Claude Brialy, Charles Denner, Claude Rich, Michel Lonsdale
Director – Francois Truffaut

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Francois Truffaut started out as a film critic in France. He wrote for the Cahiers du cinéma championing the new Auteur Theory. He made the transition to directing films garnering much acclaim with The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules And Jim (1962). He managed to get Alfred Hitchcock to sit for lengthy interviews that literally discussed every single film he made, many in great detail. These discussions were published in a book as Hitchcock/Truffaut. It remains one of the greatest texts on filmmaking. It makes sense that at some point he’d want to make a film as an homage to Hitchcock. The Bride Wore Black is that movie. He chose to adapt a book by Cornell Woolrich who wrote the story that was the basis for one of Hitchcock’s most well known films, Rear Window. Further he hired Bernard Herrmann to compose the film’s score. Herrmann did seven soundtracks for Hitchcock with whom he is most often identified . Nothing wrong with stacking the deck in your favor.

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This is a revenge film in which a widowed woman hunts down the five men who killed her husband on her wedding day. She methodically murders each of the men using various methods and dressing only in black and white. Jeanne Moreau as Julie The Bride already had a very significant film career by the time she came to this film. She is a marvelous actress full of self assurance and confidence in the role. This is a woman wronged, decidedly not a girl. We see her commit the first murder by pushing a man from a balcony but we have no idea why or even that she was going to do this. Each of the men she stalks and hunts down are exploited before the kill. She uses their womanizing against them, playing with them as easily as a cat with a mouse. The Bride has a very deliberate mission while they are merely looking to add another notch to their thigh bone. There is a distinct rhythm to each man’s last moments. She reveals who she is to savor the revengeful moment all the more. The audience after the first one, is then treated to a flashback that fills in more of the story.

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We find out that these five men were part of a group that met to hunt, play cards and chase women. During a poker game at an apartment across the street from the wedding they play around with a rifle and accidentally discharge a round that fells the groom. It is interesting to note that when he is shot we do not see any blood at all. Are we invited to suspect that maybe the man wasn’t killed? Was his death staged? Or is it simply that the French, at that time in film were far more comfortable with casual nudity than bloodshed. Later in the film we see a glimpse of Miss Moreau’s breasts in a mirror. The boundaries for violence in mainstream cinema had been knocked down but good in the United States the year before with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

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Truffaut’s film is much more than an exercise in style. It stands on its own as a perfectly fine thriller albeit with obvious overtones of Hitchcock. There are still plenty of European characteristics apparent. The film opens slowly, perhaps to a fault. The dialogue does not have that snap to it or any of the witty repartee that someone like Cary Grant would handle so well in Hiticock’s films. Instead there are longer takes and pauses that punctuate many conversations. The most obvious stylistic device that Truffaut borrows is the compositions. Buildings and landscape became part of each scene. There are camera angels and movements that come right out of his play book. We follow Moreau as she methodically moves through her list of men, crossing each one off in a note book as they meet their demise. The construction, once we get past the first one is very obvious. There is not the kind of suspense that we may have been led to expect. This is not a mystery. We know she is going to get these guys one at a time. We savor how she does it. That she will be able to do it is assumed. There is no room then for a twist or some kind of shocking reveal at the end.

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Jeanne Moreau is dressed in black and white with many of her dresses having a mod or pop art flair to them. The opportunity to contrast them with the bright and lovely sites of Southern France would seem natural yet the cameraman gives us a lot of subdued colors. Much of the film seems purposefully underlit. Raoul Coutard the Director of Photography had been working with Jean Luc Goddard before. He uses a lot of natural light and soft lighting in the interiors. As a result the film can be flat at times with little depth. There are stories of Truffaut and Courtard fighting so much that Miss Moreau had to manage the actors for some scenes. I have no idea if that is true or who really determined how the film should look. Again to an audience used to the Hollywood style of using a large amount of light to bring out detail and color this appears to take away from the look of the film. Perhaps it is just a case where a European sensibility clashed with the more well prepared style that Hitchcock employed.

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There are lots of little touches that make you smile as you watch. Several times The Bride empties a glass into a flower pot. She uses this ruse in the first murder to send someone out of the balcony to fetch her a refill so she can be alone with her prey. As we see this bit more we know that it will become a plot device later in the film, but that is fine. The anticipation and recognition of it works well. Bernard Herrmann’s score is nothing short of fabulous. He uses motifs and techniques we recognize. Obviously he sounds like himself and the director delights in his contribution. It fits the homage beautifully. For me the best part of the whole film and the sequence that is absolutely Hitchockian is the last murder. It is told in a purely visual style. The last man is in prison and the Bride has manipulated herself in there was well. We follow one of the inmates as she moves the food cart from cell to cell serving the prisoners. There are two to a cell. First she takes care of three cells with women in them, then a turn at the end of the corridor to the men. At the second cell, the second man is revealed to be that last man on the list. We then see Moreau don an apron for her turn with the cart. She secrets a knife in a towel on the tray. She doles out the bread and soup to the ladies. When she takes the cart down that corridor to the men‘s cells the camera waits. She turns the corner out of sight. The camera just stays put. We hear a cell door being unlocked. We hear her serve one then the other. And then the second cell door is unlocked. And then the second man. We don’t need to see anything. We can imagine everything. Right on cue we hear his scream. She has done it, gotten them all. It is a brilliant bit.

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The innovative pop art dresses and costuming for Jeanne Moreau are a bit reminiscent of the style of a certain British TV show. That may be a stretch. But what really makes me think of this show is the tongue in cheek manner in which several of the murders are carried out. The pushing the man off of a balcony and poisoning are fine. However when The Bride locks a full grown adult man in a closet under the stairs and then proceeds to tape up the cracks with huge strips of packing tape so he will suffocate well that‘s got a certain flavor to it. Then when she is dressed up like Aphrodite or an Amazon princess and dispatches her victim with a bow and arrow that is exactly the kind of murderous humor that was so prevalent in The Avengers (1961 – 1969).

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Video – 1.66:1
The film’s elements look to be in fine shape. The many compositions and shots done in Hitchock’s style all come across well. There is a soft look to the film and many colors appear to be muted. However that must have been someone’s intention at the time the film was shot. It looks off to me but that is a stylistic choice.

Audio – DTS-HD MA 1.0 in original French with subtitles offered in English. English Dubbed track also available
The highlight here is the lovely score by Bernard Herrmann. Subtitles are all easy to read and do not move too quickly. There is a decent dubbed track available for those that have a tough time with subtitles.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature Isolated Score Track, Commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Steven C. Smith, and Nick Redman, Original Theatrical Trailer. Bonus CD: Conversation Piece: An Unvarnished Chat with Bernard Herrmann (79 mins)

If you like Bernard Herrmann you have to listen to the CD that comes with this set. Some poor reporter has set up an interview with the composer. What he gets is a cantankerous, challenging, curmudgeon of a man. He slams the New Hollywood and composers that want to do their own thing. However in between the vitriol and put downs he reveals some interesting things about ghost writing, live symphonies vs. film scores and why he likes to work with difficult directors. This was a great find and wonderful that they gave it its own CD. You also get to hear his clock chime and dog bark a lot, too.

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Animal Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

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Stars – Joey Lauren Adams, Elizabeth Gillies, Paul Iacono, Amaury Nolasco and Thorsten Kaye
Director – Brett Simmons

Released by Scream / Shout Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Animal may seem like it is treading on familiar territory. A group of kids trek into the woods for a hike but wind up getting chased by a hellacious monster that kills one of them. They spy a cabin in the distance and make a run for it. When they arrive all the windows are boarded up but lights are on, They pound on the door. A barricade is lifted and they scurry in to find three people already hiding there. One of their party was also killed by the monster. Have they been herded there so the creature can snack on them when it gets hungry? It is a siege story. The two groups have to work together to defend themselves or try to find a way out. Does it recall Feast (2005) ? Sure but the plot of people holed up and trapped inside somewhere trying to fend off a monster has been done for years going back to It The Terror Beyond Space (1958) and many others. However Animal serves up a pretty damn good looking monster.

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The group is made up of an attractive cross section of types. Elizabeth Gilies will be familiar to those who watched the Nickelodeon TV series, Victorious. Her character gets an interesting arc and she does a good job with it. Amaury Nolasco who was so good as Sucre in The Prison Break TV series gets to play a real jerk who only thinks of his own survival at the expense of anyone else. His selfish cynical outlook turns everyone against him. There is a gay character Sean that seems drawn a bit too much like a caricature for this day and age yet Paul Iacono is such a good actor that he makes the most of it. He manages to make him pretty interesting and gets some real emotion going. But the melodrama is not why you’re watching. The creature design and effects by Gary Tunnicliffe goes back to the man in the suit style monster. This thing is vicious. The beast hurls people to the ground and digs its many teeth inside tearing them apart. There is plenty of blood and visceral thrills to go around. Director Simmons even throws in a few old fashioned jump scares that work remarkably well. At first we only get glimpses and flashes of this beat but the costume holds up to more prolonged exposure as the film goes on. My only real complaint is that the action of some of the attacks is speeded up by means of that slice and dice editing. It is a cheap way to get a response. With a creature design as good as this one and a director who builds tension pretty well there is no need for it.

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Animal moves swiftly along. The group that has bonded together gets whittled down one by one. There is an interesting attempt to stop the creature that was refreshing to see. Will it get down to the one sole survivor? This is a slice of B style monster movie. You get what you expect. I had a good time with it and was pleasantly engaged by the look and movement of the creature. While the collection of characters was pretty standard there were a few actors that gave it a nice lift. If you are hankering for a decent monster film, Animal will get the job done.

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Video – 1.78:1
This is a recent film shot with good equipment. It looks fine if a bit like a TV movie.
We do get a nice feel for being trapped in the old boarded up house.

Audio – DTS-HD Master 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Stereo with subtitles offered in English
The surrounds in your system will get a nice workout with this one. At first the sounds of the forest get a nicely immersive treatment. What was quite a treat was how the sounds of the monster travel around the house, and your home theater. It circles around to the right and then behind you. The characters trapped in the house follow it just as you do. It’s a nicely done mix and quite enjoyable. The 5.1 mix is not listed on the cover but it’s there.

Extras – Commentary with director Brett Simmons and cinematographer Scott Winig, Interviews with cast, Behind the scenes footage, Trailer.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good