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Archive for April, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

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Stars – Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marinó, Dominic Rains, Milad Eghbali, Rome Shadanloo, Marshall Manesh
Director – Ana Lily Amirpour

Released by Kino Lorber

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

A girl walking alone in parts of the Mid East is not a common sight. Far less common would be a girl walking by herself at night. The title itself, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night may be seen as taking a stand against the cultures that would demand that this lady be accompanied on her sojourn. But walk alone she does. She is simply known as The Girl. She is dressed with a traditional long cloak and headscarf. The fabric flows out behind her as she walks. There is a boy, Arash. He drives an incredibly cool car that looks like the type James Dean would be seen in. He saved up for it working hour by hour. He remembers exactly how many hours it took to buy it. His father is a junkie who owes money to a pusher. The pusher takes the boy’s car to help pay his father’s debt. Now the boy walks at night. They live in Bad City. There are very few people around at night. Pimps, prostitutes, a transvestite, pushers, junkies, a young kid out too late and the boy and the girl.

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There is not much of a narrative story at all here. The spoken language is Farsi with subtitles running across the bottom of the screen. Those who do not like reading subtitles need not worry as there is precious little dialogue spoken in the film. The pace is slow, languid even. The actors pose in long extended takes. However the film is rich in the gorgeous black and white cinemaphotography of Lyle Vincent. After about twenty minutes the lack of story or much of anything happening bothered me but I had no trouble hanging in there due to the series of fantastic tableaus that filled the screen. Much of the imagery is drawn from the type of art found in graphic novels but it has its own distinct rhythm. This is far more a series of pictures and moments than the typical style of moviemaking. Director Ana Lily Amirpour lets us know right from the start that The Girl is a vampire. Though she kills and takes her nourishment there are no bloody or violent encounters.

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Almost all the actors become props for the increasingly beguiling pictures that are offered. The only actor that has any energy at all is the pusher. He’s aggressive, loud and out of place in the melancholy pace that everyone else moves in. Arash and The Girl meet and discover a common interest in music. One night he gives her a present of jeweled earrings. He tells her that her ears are not pierced like other girls. She asks him to pierce them, He heats a needle and in a clever reversal of the vampire’s ritual of taking a companion he pierces her. He does this twice, once in each ear just like the two bite holes her fangs would have left in his neck. It might be romantic but they are so quiet you can’t tell. There is only one part when they ever so slowly smile at each other.

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Though the director call this film her Iranian Vampire Western it was actually shot in California with the Farsi dialogue done phonetically. Ana Lily Armirpour was born in England. Her family lived in Miami then moved to California. She trained at UCLA. She is an Iranian-American. She’s got a bundle of cultures and influences coursing through her celluloid veins. This is her first film and while her style, at present lacks the discipline  usually found in more polished Hollywood films she has a tremendous visual way of expressing herself. There is a scene where The Girl confronts a young boy on the streets at night. She asks him if he is a good boy. He says yes and she asks him several more times then tells him she will be watching him. Is she telling the boy not to grown up to be the kind of dominating man so common in that society? Is she taking a stand for female equality? We don’t know. What we do see though in the next scene is that she has taken his skateboard. Vincent gives us a shot of her skating past the boarded up industrial buildings. She flows down the street with her headscarf and cloak trailing out behind her.  With shots like that the film just takes you along forgoing the expected story and dialogue. Much of the film is entrancing like that.

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Rarely does a film come along that can just get by with such a measured pace and an almost purely visual style. Gus Van Sant who is best known for Good Will Hunting (1997) has made some films like Paranoid Park (2007) that work wonderfully on that level. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a marvelous cinematic experience. Will it be enough of a vampire film for horror fans – likely not. However it you have a little patience and a taste for stunning black and white photography you may very well fall under its considerable spell.

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blu ray

Video – 2.35:1 B/W
This is a simply stunning looking film.

Audio – 5.1 surround in Farsi with optional English subtitles
There is hardly any dialogue at all. Though there is little use of effects in the surrounds we do get a nice mix of songs drawn from a variety of sources that blend in very well with the film.

Extras – Behind-the-Scenes, Footage Collectible Graphic Novels with Essay by Eric Kohn, Deleted Scenes, Q&A Hosted by Roger Corman at the Hammer Museum, part of MoMA’s Contenders Series, Stills Gallery, Trailer, VICE Behind-the-Scenes Documentary, VICE Meets Ana Lily Amirpour and Sheila Vand

For me the director came off poorly in the extras here. She has a tough time expressing herself and finding her words in the interviews. At other times she appears very girlish and giggly. Perhaps she was nervous. She does have one bit where she tries to explain the thrill of filmmaking. She calls it athletic and brings in a Bruce Lee quote. It’s a bit muddled but her genuine enthusiasm shines through. The packaging is wonderful.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

Echoes Blu-Ray Review

Monday, April 20th, 2015

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Stars – Kate French , Steven Brand, Steve Hanks, Billy Wirth
Director – Nils Timm
Released by Anchor Bay

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Echoes is basically a two person show. Anna is having trouble sleeping. As she struggles with what appears to be anxiety or nightmares the camera lets us see a big glass of wine and several prescription bottles. This looks like a nightly ritual that doesn’t quite get the job done. By day she is struggling to finish a film script. Her agent Paul pressures her to do one more draft to make the best possible impression on the studio he will show it to. He has a marvelous British accent. He also happens to be her boyfriend. Paul suggests they get away for a few days at his glass house located in the middle of the Joshua Tree Desert.

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Once there Paul is called back to work and Anna is left alone in the desolate house with his dog for company. Things get creepy from there. Every wall of the house is glass and it feels like someone is looking in on her. She tapes black trash can bags to the windows. The next morning the date 3/20/2012 is scrawled all over the windows. Very strange. Is Paul trying to “gaslight” her? Did he conspire to get her out there all alone and then drive her crazy? There is a story about a blind woman who went for a hike in the desert and vanished never to return. The only other person in the film is a loner who lives in a trailer all by himself. He as done some work on the house for Paul in the past. Now we were not sure if he is genuinely trying to help Anna or not. We wonder if his fear of getting involved is based on something real or supernatural.

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Echoes is a mystery story. As we try to figure out what is happening to Anna and how much may be the result of her fragile mental state the film takes on the trappings of a crime thriller. Both Kate French and Steven Brand turn in good performances. For a major portion of the film we are left with Kate as she tries to made sense of the events out in the desert house. Much of the time she is silent and we follow her treks into the eerie night time desert. Often she is just trapped in that clear see-through house getting more and more paranoid. Clearly this is a low budget film that uses its limited resources to full advantage. The two actors, the fabulous desert location and that amazing looking glass house are all director/writer Nils Timm really has to work with.

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Echoes is well done even if the finale to that first hour’s slow boil build up at the end is not as satisfying as it could be. The key to the locked room, the reveal of the twist or surprise ending is the hallmark of a well written mystery. Writer Timm comes up short here but as a director he works very hard to give his story a good run for its money.

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Video – 2.40:1
The film looks very good however much of the shading and tinting of the picture appear to have been done post production as opposed to being created by virtue of the lighting when it was shot. That gives it a too processed and uniform look for my taste. Many of the sequences seem drawn completely in the exact same color scale with no variation. Granted that was intentional. That is a matter of personal preference.

Audio – DTS-HD Master 5.1. Subtitles are offered in Spanish and English SDH
All dialogue and effects are clear. The music was a bit weak and at times is edited in a choppy fashion though.

Extras – None

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Fair/Good

The Gambler (2014) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

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Stars – Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jessica Lange, George Kennedy
Director – Rupert Wyatt

Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

One can’t ignore the fact that this is a remake of the acclaimed 1974 film written by James Tobeck and directed by Karel Reiz (Sweet Dreams). That film managed to artfully combine the scholarly and the sleazy in a no holds bared examination of a brilliant university professor whose gambling habit has brought him to the brink with the gangsters he owes a great deal of money to. That film contains what is for my money one of James Caan’s two greatest performances; the other being Thief (1981). As long as there is some distance from the original the new version can certainly be its own movie. I’ve nothing against remakes as they truly don’t damage or interfere with the standing of the initial production. However in this case the choices that writer/adapter William Monahan has made are simply not very appealing. He states in the extras that his script is the antithesis of the thesis of the original Tobeck script. The characterizations are poorly drawn leaving us with a film centered around an egotistical college professor who believes life is an all or nothing at all proposition.

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Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett in a perfectly costumed sloppy attire that has every unkempt hair set perfectly in place. He does look very cool indeed behind his shades. The times we see him in his classroom he tells the class who is talented and who may as well just become an electrician. There is a cute girl in the class with whom he has an affair. Brie Larson as Amy is very bright and attractive. However we have no idea why she hangs around the loser professor. The rest of the supporting characters never seem to connect very well with the main character save for one scene. Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire) is one of the gangsters who holds a marker on James. John Goodman is another lender whose expansive girth here is photographed to make him seem like Jabba The Hut. His second scene with Whalberg is one of the few well written past of the film. Goodman explains his theory of Fuck You Money in life. When you get enough you can say Fuck You to anything anyone wants of you. Before he lends Jim a considerable amount of cash he insists that they see the world eye to eye. It’s a very effective sequence mostly due to the monologue as written by Monahan and delivered by Goodman. It reminded me of an interview that Johnny Carson once gave Rolling Stone as he was about to retire. He too extolled the value of earning enough to say the magic phrase.

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Jessica Lange turns in a good performance as Jim’s mother although there is none of the emotional dept and whallop that drove Jacqueline Brookes’ heartbreaking turn as the mother in the earlier film. If you have seen the original comparisons are bound to come up. There are images and bits from the original film such as Caan in the bathtub listening to the basketball game that are reenacted with Wahlberg. That seems a poor choice as it never lets the new film fully stand on its own, for good or bad. Director Rupert Wyatt who did such an unexpectedly great job with another remake, The Rise of the Planet of The Apes, makes the most of the Los Angeles setting. He gives the locations a nice looking sheen. Even the back alleys look good. The world he has created for The Gambler has an LA slickness to it. Professor Jim inhabits a world of the rich and well to do. He keeps the film in that one modality. Even the part where Wahlberg gets worked over and beat up is set in the deep end of an empty indoor swimming pool. His camera starts back so we can appreciate the angles and expanse of the pool’s shape from the shallow the deep end where Wahlberg sits tied to a chair. As opposed to a threatening ambiance we can another empty type locale that matches Jim’s seeming indifference to anything that happens to him. Unfortunately that attitude is catching as we never seem to care much what happens to him either.

THE GAMBLER

Video – 2.40:1
This film looks absolutely fine as you would expect for a current picture on Blu-Ray. Colors appear to be realized exactly as intended. Black levels are strong. Detail is very sharp throughout.

Audio – DTS-HD Master 5.1 in English as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese, Subtitles are offered in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English SDH
All dialogue is clear and easy to follow. There are some very clever song choices peppered into the track. Hearing Alan Price’s “Poor People” song from O Lucky Man was very welcome cue.

Extras – Mr. Self Destruct: Inside The Gambler, Dark Before Dawn: The Descent of the Gambler, Changing the Game:Adpatation, In the City: Locations, Dressing the Players: Costume design, Deleted / extended scenes. DVD and Digital copy included.  We get to hear the producers, writer and director talk extensively about their preparations for the film.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Fair

The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show 6-DVD Collector’s Set DVD Review

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

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Stars – Ed Sullivan, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers

Released by StarVista, TimeLife

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

What you have in this collection is five TV specials celebrating the Ed Sullivan Show. Two are devoted to the overall best of the show while three are driven by specific themes. For 23 years Sullivan presented the premier variety show on Sunday evenings. This was a family event with something for everyone. The variety show format is pretty much gone now. Any given show would have a nice mix of comedians, established main stream musical acts, imported nightclub acts from Europe, maybe a scene from a Broadway show and one or two world class variety acts. The variety acts would run the gamut from jugglers, to plate spinners, acrobats, and a cornucopia of animal acts. While it may sound like too much of a mash-up now it was amazing how well the pace of the show was constructed. Some of these variety acts were from long established circuses while others seemed to come from cruises ships. With so much of the show being an auditory treat these performers were essentially visual artists. May of them were from foreign countries but their acts had no language barrier. An hour of this every week exposed you to a wide berth of the entertainment spectrum. Whether you liked all of the acts or not your palate was expanded. There is nothing like this on modern television anymore.

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Unforgettable performances and the 50th Anniversary special are hosted by Carol Burnet and The Smothers Brothers respectively. These are essentially clip fests that work on a familiar breezy TV special format. The host segments are largely poorly written. The exception is a short sequence that gives a background on Sullivan’s career in newspapers and television. We get the highlights; the best portions of the best bits. We loose the build up and some of the masterful pacing that these artists had. However the goal here is not to archive the acts but to celebrate and pay tribute to the show. This was a very popular format of the day. If you are familiar with the show there is a huge nostalgic factor that is fed well. It’s hard to say whether a newcomer would get the real value of many of these performers in such a brief showcase.

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We do get a look at some of the controversy on the show. The Rolling Stones changed “let’s spend the night together” to” let’s spend some time together” at Sullivan’s request while The Doors agreed to eliminate the line, “ girl we couldn’t get any higher” from Light My Fire but sang it live on TV anyway. Comedian Jackie Mason was famously blackballed for flipping Sulivan the finger when he told him to wrap his segment up early from the wings. We also see what in many cases is the only footage of some of the incredible shows that were on Broadway at the time. It is breathtaking to see songs from The Man of La Mancha and West Side Story. Where else on American television could you have seen acts like Topo Gigio the mouse or Senor Wences.

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The best of the lot to me was The All-Star Comedy Special hosted by Mary Tyler Moore.  Her hosting is brief and mostly superfluous. Even though we get the edited highlights most of theses comics are so good, and we know them so well that they get us into their groove almost immediately. Flip Wilson sashays about the stage saying “The Devil made me do it”. Red Skelton tosses his hair in front of his face to become one character and tosses it back to become another. Jackie Gleason is just masterful to see. The footage of him is poor but he is so funny you don’t mind. There are early clips of George Carlin and Richard Pryor before they got their established comedic personas down. Joan Rivers does her abrasive schtick. Alan King comes off very well here. He was one who would never preview his act for Sullivan as the other comics were made to do. He winged his act, improvising his material based on what has just happened. One time he got to the show late because an airline company screwed up. He made fun of the airline and called them by name in his hilarious bit. The next day the airline threatened to sue.

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World’s Greatest Novelty acts and Amazing Animal Acts may be too much of a good thing. These are alternately amazing, adorable and wacky. Sprinkled into the show’s variety format these acts have a very fresh and unusual appeal. When watching them one after the other their special nature wanes pretty quickly. The last disc, Bonus Interviews gives us longer portion of the interviews that have been edited into the other shows. Again Alan King comes off the best. He is very frank in his assessment of the shows and Sullivan. They had their confrontations yet King is respectful and appreciative. For a comedian the Sullivan show was truly the ticket to having a career at the time. Score big on his show and your price went up. As you see these discs some of the same material shows up more than more. The interactions between Ed Sullivan and the various performers who walk across the stage reveal his noted wooden personality and lack of humor.

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Collectors looking for complete shows or entire segments of an act on the show should understand that this is not what this set offers. The highlight clip fest format that was the way so many TV specials were done at the time is on full display here. If you want an effervescent light cocktail at least three of these are wonderful. It is an undeniable kick to see The Jackson Five dancing in step to those early hits. The Beatles and Elvis Presley clips are overly familiar but there are loads of lovely moments in this set. I had not see Bill Dana as the reluctant astronaut in years. He is mentioned in the film The Right Stuff.  The comedy disc has more than its share of killer comedy in it. Many of these folks were at their prime here. Doing the Sullivan show brought out the best in everyone who worked that stage. This a fun look back at a bygone era of television.

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Video – 1.33:1
The picture is presented in the TV format of the day as it should be. The picture quality varies a great deal. Some of the clips are poor but the bits like the one with Jackie Gleason are just too good not to include. All of it is entirely watchable but nothing has the look of a restoration. You’ll find instances of softness, colors bleeding and fuzzy images throughout.

Audio -
The sound is okay. No subtitles are offered. The music portions sounds like they are coming out of a single little speaker in an old television set. That’s what the sound was originally designed for. However in most cases the level of performance transcends that drawback by a long shot.

Extras – Bonus disc as described above.

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

DVD – Good

Movie – Good