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Archive for May, 2015

Killer Cop (1975) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

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Stars – Arthur Kennedy, Claudio Cassinelli, Sara Sperati, Franco Fabrizi, Bruno Zanin
Director – Luciana Ecoli

Released by Raro Video

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Killer Cop is a misleading translation of the title. It builds up the expectation of a loose cannon trigger happy cop out for vengeance. A more accurate one for La Polizia Ha Le Mani Legate would be The Police Can’t Move or The Police Have Their Hands Tied. In the realm of action packed Poliziotteschi (Italo-crime), this one stands apart. While following a drug dealer to a hotel detective Ronaldi (Claudio Cassinelli) finds himself in the midst of an international convention. He goes about his work until all hell breaks loose when a suitcase left at the concierge explodes. This terrorist attack leaves bloodied bodies everywhere. The whole lobby is reduced to rubble. Ronaldi learns that a man in a green raincoat was seen trying to remove a suitcase just before the bomb went off but any witnesses are left dead. Ronaldi’s instincts kick in as he tries to locate the seemingly reluctant terrorist. Another detective Balsamo stumbles upon this very same bomber as he leaves a note for the police in a phone booth apologizing, saying it was a mistake. Balsamo is not much of a cop and he looses him on a bus.

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It’s a great tradition for Italian films of this era to include an American star who is perhaps a bit past his prime in the US but still good box office in Europe. Arthur Kennedy was in Man From Laramie (1955) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Here he is one pissed off man in charge. He is a politically driven police commissioner who makes a real promise to track down this heinous terrorist. The plotline is very much like a police procedural. Ronaldi uncovers facts and tracks them down. He finds out the terrorist lost his glasses at the scene and is subsequently as blind as Mr. Magoo. This guy we suspect is mentally unstable and was being used by others to plant the suitcase. At one point Ronaldi has an optometrist call all the shops in there area to be on the lookout for this guy. He even gets his prescription to pass along. Someone spots him and calls the detective. Ronaldi arrive a moment too late but learns the guy is a junkie. The man also escapes with a pair of those testing glasses that make him look like Peter Lorre in Mad Love when he puts them on.

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All of this is played straight. The costuming is done very well. No one runs around in clashing paisley jackets and loud plaid pants. It’s a departure from most in this genre that director Luciana Ecoli lets the film run on the strength of his characters. He presents much more of a police drama than an action picture. There are plenty of nice directorial details. Ronaldi drives a Mercedes. He is always explaining that it is used rather than have anyone suspect him of police graft. Whenever drives off we can see a huge part of one door painted in basic primer that is in desperate need of work. His friend Balsamo is presented as a successful ladies man but is forever coming up short just when he is being considered for a promotion. There is a bit of business between Ronaldi and his friend Balsamo with a lighter that becomes a very poignant touch. Killer Cop is a well done cop drama that is well worth your time. Fans of the genre not familiar with it will get a real kick out of it. In the interview Ecoli says that he preferred not to work with stars but rather down to earth actors that he could get along with and get work out of without having to succumb to the ego and politics associated with big names. He also assures us that this was a very professional shoot. All of that shows in the finished product.

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Video – 2.35:1
“New HD transfer from original 35mm negative. Digitally restored.” This is a great looking transfer. The film has the hue and haze associated with some of those backstreets and the way they were shot in European films of that era. There is a good detail however everything retains a true filmic look with grain apparent as it should be. It looks good and natural.

Audio – PCM 2.0 Stereo in Italian with English subtitles, English dubbed
There are a few portions of the English dub that are supported by subtitles when the audio was not available. The soundtrack has an additive theme to it that bounces along in a nice fashion. It sounds to me like Arthur Kennedy’s voice in the English dub. Films of this time were generally shot without sound and dubbed later. However the Italian language version puts you in the picture much better

Extras – Interview with Alessandro Calosci (subtitled ), A fully illustrated booklet.
The director is very expressive about the film and his style of filmmaking.

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

Blue Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good

Healing DVD Review

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

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Stars – Hugo Weaving, Don Hany, Xavier Samuel
Director – Craig Monahan

Released by Anchor Bay

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The film begins with a shot that follows a majestic eagle flying through the skies. For a moment we track behind this incredible bird as it surfs on the air currents banking down toward the ground. It is an inspiring opening and not at all how you’d expect a prison picture to begin. Based on true events Healing is the story of a unique program that charges problematic inmates with the rehabilitation of wounded birds of prey. This male population is close to the end of their term. As they near the time for release back into the outside world the program attempts to give or awaken the skills they’ll need to have a shot at a better life. The minimum security housing resembles the rustic cabins of a summer camp more than any other kind of correctional facility. Most of the population works on a farm there but there are a few assigned to this unusual activity. A bond over birds between senior officer Matt Perry and a nearby combination animal refuge / show facility provides this unique opportunity.

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Viktor Khadem is the one everybody fears there. He is a hard case nearing the end of his eighteen year sentence. Part of his reputation is based on the rumor that he killed a man at the last facility that housed him. He is quiet and brooding. He never goes out of his cabin unless he is ordered to. When a new man joins his cabin he must adapt to Viktor’s OCD style of neat house keeping. Viktor flies solo and has nothing to do with anyone. One day a mighty Wedge-Tailed Eagle with an impressive six foot wingspan gets tangled in a barbed wire fence at the edge of the camp. Viktor show a gentle side as he frees the wounded bird. He is suddenly protective of this injured predator. This becomes the starts of the program. An expert from the animal refuge helps them set up the bird sanctuary but it is the inmates led by Viktor that build it. They are each given birds to nurse back to health. They are told not to get too close. Once the birds’ injuries have healed they will be released back into the wild.

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The metaphor though plain and simple is surprisingly affecting. The birds are broken. The inmates are broken. Even Matt is broken and unable to heal from the recent death of his child. Will the birds and the inmates be able to heal enough to rejoin the world outside the confines of the prison. The relationship between several of the men and these huge raptors is quite intense. This is no charming Disney story though. They must try to keep from forming a bond with these wounded creatures lest they become too dependant on them for food and loose their hunter’s instinct. We hear some back story but not too much. The soulfulness and freedom inherent in flight makes a powerful impact on Viktor. To watch him and Yasmin, the eagle he cares for, work together makes for engaging cinema. This bird is huge! Viktor learns a lot about this majestic bird of prey. There are a few at the prison who deal drugs and subjugate others. Their doings are noted by Viktor and ignored till a line is crossed. The real story though is the birds and the men who strive to rehabilitate them.

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Hugo Weaving (agent Smith from the Matrix films, Hobbit trilogy, Lord of the Rings) plays his role calmly. We can see he cares a great deal about the birds and what happens to Viktor. However he is wounded. Weaving plays this aspect wonderfully never letting you forget that he too is not whole anymore. Don Hany as Viktor is a strong presence. He’s a big bear of a guy. There are few times we get a peek at the gentleness inside that he hides so well. The real stars of this film are the birds. We learn in the accompanying featurette that director Craig Monahan considered using CGI but wound up meeting an extraordinary bird trainer who could do amazing things with these beautiful creatures.  Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings, Hobbit films) did a very creative job photographing these raptors both in the sky and up close. The word majestic keeps popping up and that is really how they look. Being that close to them inspires a sense of awe and respect.

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There is a line that Viktor says as he removes the hood from a bird on his arm. He removes the straps on the mighty bird’s legs that held her down. He says the line just to the bird as if she can understand. The creature is about to be let go, trust up into the air with a chance to take flight and return back where she belongs. “All that you are seeking is seeking you” This offbeat and unique film is highly recommended. Inspiration and healing have rarely been presented in such a majestic way.

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Video – 2.35:1
It is so easy to get caught up in the wonderful shots of the birds soaring in the air. You can see texture in the feathers and strong detail in the faces and eyes. The forest setting is rendered naturally. The film has a strong sense of place that is very much due to the exemplary photography of Andrew Lesnie.

Audio – Dolby Digital 5.1 with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is presented fine and easy to understand. This is not an aggressive track.
It takes a back seat to the visuals.

Extras – Photo gallery, Trailer, Deleted scenes, and Making of featurette.
The Making of piece is well worth a look to see the incredible things that the bird wrangler does. You also get to see how actor Don Hany is able to get comfortable with these feathered birds of prey.

The Australian movie poster was so strong it’s a shame that wasn’t used instead of the lackluster cover.

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

DVD – Excellent

Movies – Excellent

American Buffalo (1996) Blu-Ray Review

Monday, May 25th, 2015

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Stars – Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, Sean Nelson
Director – Michael Corrente

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

American Buffalo came out of the gritty and adventurous theatre world that was brewing so well in Chicago in the seventies. Chicago’s Organic Theater Company and St. Nicholas were groups that included director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) and actors like Joe Mantegna, Willam H. Macy and Dennis Franz. Different playwrights had their works done by them. Ray Bradbury had his Wonderful Ice Cream Suit produced there. One of Organic’s works Bleecher Bums grew out of improvisations about a disparate group of folks who always go to the same section in the baseball stadium to see the Cubs play. That toured nationally and was made into a movie. 1974 saw the world premiere production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago in that city. Mamet’s next play was American Buffalo. Mamet’s biggest hit, Glengarry Glenn Ross happened later in 1983 and just before that he wrote Edmund which would later be made into a movie directed by Stuart Gordon and starring William H Macy. It should be noted that a young William H. Macy was in the original production of American Buffalo in Chicago. This is all to give you an idea of how connected and incestuous all these folks can be. When Buffalo came to Broadway Robert Duvall and John Savage were in the cast. Al Pacino dominated a revival in 1983.John Goodman was in a more recent staging

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Adapting stage plays for the movies has always been a part of Hollywood. Some big ones, the powerhouses that tackle issues like Inherit the Wind have been mightily successful. The comedies of Neil Simon have practically all been made into films. It’s the smaller ones though, the quirky ones that can be the most interesting. Recently William Friedkin (The Exorcist) adapted two of Tracy Letts’ works into very well made films. Bug starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) was a paranoid tour de force. Killer Joe with Matthew McConaughey is astonishing though its level of trashiness and degradation would put off more than most viewers. David Mamet’s American Buffalo is a small play. It’s only got three characters and they spend the entire show shooting the shit and arguing in a junk shop in a part of town so run down that no one ever seems to visit the place. It is easy to see that Mamet came out of the peculiar dialogue driven world of Harold Pinter. Sure there is a narrative but that is not really the main point here. Yes there are characters but there are no lengthy monologues about anyone’s bakstory of where they came from. They simply exist in this moment at this time. What we see is what they are doing now.

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David Mamet earns the majority of his praise for his dialogue and rightly so. When you start watching this film of American Buffalo there is a level of streety-ness that may be unnerving. He drops F bombs and far worse constantly. These characters are lowlifes and their talk is full of jargon and curses. At first it is so real and so street-tough that you’d be tempted to marvel at how realistic it all sounds. Then you begin to notice his rhythms and the pace. He’s got a back n’ forth thing with his characters that has the skill of Wimbledon level tennis players knocking the ball to each other. They hit the words back and forth with precision and deception. There is a heightened level of intensity here. At others times pronouns are dropped to create an odd speech pattern. Teach played by Dustin Hoffman and Donny played by Dennis Franz are always prefacing or ending their comments with phrases like, “This is what I’m talking about” or “What I’m telling you is this”. You start to get the feeling that they think that nobody every really understands exactly what they mean.

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What little plot there is has to do with the planning of a robbery. The third character Bobby is a kid, an ex-junkie that Donny helped out. Some guy came in the shop and bought a buffalo nickel. Donny thinks it was worth far more than the ninety bucks he gave him for it. He had Bobby follow him. Now they want to steal the nickel back and the coin collection they figure he must have. As he hears this Teach wants in. He pushes the kid out of the deal. Donny wants to bring in Fletch, a real operator who knows about these things. As they plan the job and debate whether Fletch should be a part of it Teach keeps referring to Ruthie and the Riverside Diner across the street. They call the place the Riv. Teach is paranoid about what Ruthie says but we never find out who the hell she is.  Bobby is constantly making runs over to the Riv for breakfast and coffee which are forever screwed up in some fashion. The interplay between Teach and Donny is the heart of the piece. Dennis Franz is amazing here. He draws Hoffman to him. Hoffman plays the part big and strong. He’s got this long sleazy looking hair that comes down the back of his neck. Teach is on edge, fidgety and restless. At one point when the two of them sit at a desk Franz keeps grabbing the things out of Hoffman’s hands that he plays with and puts them well out of reach.

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Sean Nelson who plays Bobby feels miscast. He is too clean cut looking. He was very good in Fresh two years earlier but never exhibits the kind of feral street quality the part calls for. The only thing we see is that he plays up to both Teach and Donny though he really wants Donny’s approval. Teach is explosive. The part is written to move like a hot wire looking to short out. Hoffman is very good here. He does what he does so well. To find fault with him being too much like himself would come down to a debate over casting. Dennis Franz who gained recognition as detective Sipowicz in NYPD Blue is the real star here for me. He can play understated. He can get lost in the minutia of his shop. At times we an see him beginning to seethe inside. The level of internal paranoia runs deep in both Teach and Donny but Donny has developed some way to keep a lid on it. We can’t really tell if he is smarter or just more controlled.

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American Buffalo does not have the driving narrative that Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross has. If you are not drawn in by the rhythms of the dialogue and the intricacies of the damaged characters then this one will have less to offer for you. Director Corrente gets us outside on the street a little bit but by and large we are stuck in the shop all day and much of the night with two guys yammering away at each other. There is little wonder, as you hear these talented actors work over the words why so many great actors are drawn to Mamet’s works. This film will never take the place of hearing and seeing this done on a stage. However to be able to see these guys have at this script is a very compelling experience. If you have any connection to theater at all it will greatly enhance your time with this film. Not for everyone but for those who can sit down with these performances and revel in the wordplay it’s a damn good job to appreciate. This is what I’m talking about, what I’m telling you.

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Video – 1.85:1
Detail is nice and strong here. Flesh tones look real. Really the faces are what we have here and the quality holds up fine.

Audio – DTS-HD 2.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is clear and understandable. That is the crux of the film and it works fine. The music can be interesting, though for me it teases more than delivers much of that Chicago sound. The film was shot in Rhode Island but a little more Chicago would have been cool. It’s fine though.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, Commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Original theatrical trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

She Killed in Ecstasy (1970) / Vampire Lesbos (1971) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

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Stars – Soledad Miranda, Ewa Stromberg, Howard Vernon, Paul Muller, Dennis Price
Director – Jess Franco

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Jess Franco has a strong legion of followers. There are also a large amount of people who have looked at a few of his films and wondered what all the fuss was about. It’s doubtful that anyone will be migrating from one camp to the other as folks tend to have a strong reaction either way. For those new to Franco or still on the fence She Killed in Ecstasy is nice accessible entry point. The story is a straightforward tale of revenge. The beautiful Soledad Miranda lives with her doctor husband. When the local medical community turns against him for his work with human embryos he takes his life. She deals with this by killing off the ones she holds responsible. She uses disguises and her feminine wiles to draw each of these self righteous perpetrators to their unexpected death.

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Jess keeps his fondness for excessive zooming in and out under control here. Much of the film is shot in an unobtrusive way. The bloodletting is not over the top nor are any of the killings done in what would be considered a graphic fashion. Maybe this is Jess’ take on The Bride Wore Black. We watch Soledad go about her business of tempting then killing her way through the ranks of those whose scorned her husband. In between there are some gorgeous shots of Soledad coming down a long stone staircase that winds from a cliffside house down to the beach. The blue skies and the ocean are a perfect backdrop for these beauty shots.

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With a title like Vampire Lesbos you get exactly what you’d expect. Franco’s style is more what you’d normally associate with him. There is lots of nudity and blood. This is essentially his take on the Dracula vampire story. In his version most of the leading male parts are played by women. Instead of Renfield working at Dracula’s Carfax Castle before he becomes his servant or Mina being seduced to come under his spell Countess Nadine invites the lovely Linda out for a day of nude sunbathing. That part wasn’t in the Bram Stoker book. Prior to this Linda is haunted by visions of Soledad Miranda as Nadine. There are some elongated scenes that shows the leads playing with each other. There are sequences that highlighted the more dreamlike qualities that Franco is known for. The narrative is not all that important.

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Both of these films have been restored with care. There are short sections inserted which make these fully uncut. At times the quality of these rescued sequences is not on a par with the rest of the film but it doesn’t get in the way at all. Plus it’s nice to have the films in their entirety. Both films look wonderful. These new editions both feature an attractive cardboard slipcover. Vampire Lesbos has a second disc with an alternate Spanish language cut. The DVD quality is not near the level of the main disc. She Killed in Ecstasy sports an extra that is indeed a real treat. Lots of movie fans collect soundtracks. Some of them are exceedingly hard to find. Some out of print discs command outrageous prices. The second bonus disc here is a CD – “ 3 Films By Jess Franco: Vampyros Lesbos/She Killed In Ecstasy/The Devil Came From Akasava”. The music here was originally titled Sexadelic Dance Party. It’s a trip and much of it exceeds what any hipster’s ideas of cult party music would be.

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These are sold as separate editions.

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Video – Both films in 1.66:1
These are both very nice presentations. Colors are robust and strong. Detail looks fine. Aside from some minor quality dips with the new material the overall picture quality is very satisfying. I found nothing to quibble about.

Audio – 2.0 German with English subtitles.
There is a lot of dubbing here which I don’t care for but it is simply the way most of these films were done. Sync sound for whatever reason was not a common practice. The better part is the soundtrack. There are music cues that will definitely make you take notice. A soundtrack CD is included with She Killed in Ecstasy.

Extras -
Vampire Lesbos -
Vampyros Jesus: Interview featurette with Director Jess Franco
Sublime Soledad: Interview with Soledad Miranda Historian Amy Brown
Stephen Thrower on Vampyros Lesbos: Interview with Author of ‘Murderous Passions’
The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco
Jess Is Yoda Clip
Alternate German Opening Title Sequence
Dracula’s Heiress – German Trailer
DVD disc with alternative Spanish language version of the film in lesser quality.

She Killed in Ecstasy -
Jess Killed In Ecstasy”: Interview with Director Jess Franco
“Sublime Soledad”: Interview with Soledad Miranda Historian Amy Brown
“Stephen Thrower on She Killed in Ecstasy”: Interview with Author of ‘Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco’
“Paul Muller On Jess Franco”: Interview with the frequent Franco Star
German Trailer
Disc 2 (CD): 3 Films By Jess Franco: Vampyros Lesbos/She Killed In Ecstasy/The Devil Came From Akasava

The Sublime Soledad extras gives a good background of her life and the tragedy of her death at a young age.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movies – Good (that will vary wildly depending on where you stand with Jess Franco)