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Archive for August, 2015

Defiance (1980) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

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Stars –  Jan Michael Vincent, Theresa Saldana, Art Carney, Danny Aiello,Tony Sirico
Directors – John Flynn

Released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This is a fun B movie version of the old western town tamer plot set in the Lower East Side of New York City rather than in some small homesteader’s town. Jan Michael Vincent plays Tommy a merchant seaman who is stranded in the city when there is a problem with his papers. There is some vague accusation about him striking someone on board. Tommy hefts his duffle bag onto his shoulders and set sails for a real cheap place to stay while he waits for his next ship out. There is a nice montage of the city full of all kinds of neighborhood charm and genuine urban grit. He gets a room in a cheap walk up. There is lot of atmosphere from the nice Jewish girl upstairs played by Theresa Saldana to the sweet old guy who runs the local deli (Art Carney). There is a little kid who pals around with an ex boxer named Whacko. Lenny Montana easily remembered as Luca Brasi from The Godfather has taken too many punches but is loyal to the kid. There are a bunch of middle aged guys who used to be known as The Sportsmen but now they hang around a social club drinking Schlitz and Rheingold. Danny Aiello is one of them and Tony Sirico, Paulie Walnuts from the Sopranos is another. No matter how nice anyone is Tommy keeps his distance. “I’m just passing through.”

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Eventually Tommy starts to warm to the characters in his new neighborhood. However in time honored tradition there is a scourge in town. The Souls are a vicious local street gang that preys upon the older denizens of the area. Their dress is pretty over the top but Rudy Ramos as the leader keeps a cool steely eyed gazed under his scarf and wide brimmed hat. They beat up Art Carney. They bust up the local Bingo game robbing the frightened people of chump change and nickels and dimes. No one will stand up to these guys. They are too scared. One day Tommy pushes back, knocking a few heads with a big stick and the buzz electrifies the neighborhood. Will the guys in the Sportsmans club put down their glasses of beer and stand up again as the toughest guys on the block? How much can we take. When something happens to one of the beloved denizens that is too far. Rather than fight off the bad guys by himself like Shane Tommy is able to galvanize the neighborhood to stand up together.

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You’re not watching this one for the plot. Like an old cover song you’ve heard every bar band do, if they get it right it is time to get up and dance with it. Jan Michael Vincent can be very likeable on screen. He handled himself well with Charles Bronson in The Mechanic (1972) and had great presence in Buster and Bille (1974). Vincent made a strong contribution as one of the three leads in John Milius’ best film, in my opinion, Big Wednesday (1978). I suppose that makes him something of a quintessential seventies B movie actor who mostly did action films. I admit this is comfort food for me. Seventies films, whether they are artful or exploitive have their own special niche in my celluloid heart.

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We get a nice dose of genuine New York City locations from a part of the city that doesn’t show up all that often. The shots done along the river reveal a nice section of the city that mixes the calm of the water with the urban decay into a rather oddly restful area.  Director John Flynn also directed The Outfit (1973) a solid adaptation of a Donald Westlake novel with Robert Duvall. He directed Rolling Thunder (1977) just prior to this one.  Flynn also did Lock Up (1989) with Sylvester Stallone that features a terrific montage of prison inmates restoring a classic Mustang car cut to the tune of the 70s hit Vehicle. He’s got a nice lean and mean style perfectly suited to this film. And just to put you in the proper mood before the film starts we see that his is an AIP film !  Classic Seventies urban action is served up well in Defiance.

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Video – 1.85:1
This is the best the film has looked in any home video format. Colors all look fine. Some of the shadows and interiors get a little indistinct. There is that slightly soft look at times and areas of film grain that are very much the hallmarks of many films shot in that time period. This is a gritty film shot on a low budget and it looks quite good for what it is.

Audio – DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo with no subtitles offered
Sound is fine. We get that soundtrack of songs written for the film rather than tunes from the time period. Some may stick out a bit to your ears as mimicking a certain style.

Extras – None

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

Blue-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Bessie Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

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Stars – Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps, Oliver Platt
Directors – Dee Rees

Released by HBO

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The idea of making a movie about blues legend Bessie Smith has kicked around for awhile. For the last twenty years Queen Latifah has been attached to this project. She says in the interviews included in the extras that she is glad it took this long as she now has the necessary life experience to draw from for the role. Her performance, along with the one by Mo’Nique as Ma Rainy are the best things about this film. It’s hard to imagine now in this age of hyper publicized stars and tweets that move at the speed of light what it took to fill a whole theater back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Shows back then had fabulous ostentatious costumes that stood out all the way to the cheap seats in the back of the house. There was dancing, broad comedy and all kinds of singing. The bands were wild. Jokes might start out nice and tame but they could get plenty risqué. Bawdy humor was a staple of the circuit then. Stars had to know how to work a crowd. Black shows had their own circuit for a largely segregated audience. There were a few black women that had killer stage shows that became very popular. They could sing like a house on fire and really connect with an audience. Bessie Smith is remembered as one of the great blues singers of that era. The kind of blues she did had a lot in common with jazz and theater. She told stories in her songs. Rather than show us what made Bessie such a special performer and singer this new HBO movie gives us another bio pick that hits the high and low points of a life in rapid succession. Yes she had many struggles as a woman, as a black woman and as a bisexual black woman who drank too much but that is not what she is remembered for. It’s the way she sang and what she sang that made her a legend.

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From the first moment we see her when she breaks a bottle and cuts a man who is going too far with her we see that Bessie takes no shit from no one. This is in an alley outside a theater. She drops the bloody glass and then rushes on stage to sing. It’s a cool dramatic choice but like much of the film we are led to believe that her aggressive attitude is what made her so great. The film glosses over her early years very quickly. We get a flashback to her being chased by her older sister with a knife. We hop, skip and jump over the part where her brother took her on the road with him and taught her the ropes.

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All of a sudden she is barging into a private train car and demanding that Ma Rainy let her do her own show. Hold on? Who is this and how did all of this happen. Was she singing for Ma Rainy? How did she get that gig? Who is Ma Rainy to this business? It’s hard to tell if we are supposed to fill in these gaps with our own recall of the events or that they just don’t really matter at all. What we do see though is that Rainy teaches her many of the nuances of the trade and how to connect with an audience. The relationship between these two people and these two actresses is the most compelling part of the film. Bessie is portrayed as ultra competitive. She’s got to be the best. She needs her own private train car with her name on it. We get the feeling that Rainy is secretly delighted to have found another with such talent and that she truly delights in helping her along. Some of that is played over the top and some of it is more rained in. There is a gentle scene later in the film where Rainy puts on one of Bessie’s records and just dances around, alone and so proud of her friend.

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There are two scenes where we see Rainy and Bessie tangle with the theater owners for their rightful share of the box office. Their managers have to argue and threaten. But that’s just the way it was then. Learning some of this insider knowledge of the business is terrific. I wish there were more of it. Many of the highlights portrayed here are fairly accurate. It’s just that the film rushes so quickly through them and leaves out much of the music side of the story. It is clear that a lot of effort was spent to get just the right period clothes for the show. The women’s hats, their dresses, the men’s shirts, coats and suits all have been created with extreme care. Unfortunately they all look like they have been imported from a modern day costume designer. In every scene all the clothing looks brand new, like it was made yesterday. When we are in a train station set with all the smoke and soot and dirt being blown around all the actors’ costumes look like they just got back from the dry cleaners, not a speck of dirt on them. The sets also look beautifully researched. But again they all appear to have been built by the best crew in Hollywood yesterday. Nearly every time a scene is played it looks like the maid service just left before they called action. Consequently the whole film has a manufactured  high gloss quality. That decision doesn’t fit this story well at all.

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There is a scene with Bessie performing in a tent. The Klu Klux Klan tries to stop the show. Bessie storms down from the stage and knocks one of them to the ground. She grabs his hatchet out of his hands. She strides back into the tent, hands the hatchet to a fan, and walks right back on stage to start singing again. However the sound of her singing with the band feels like it was recorded elsewhere and played over the scene. It feels antiseptic when it should feel heroically galvanizing. Sure the truth is being stretched a bit here but this a film and that’s a cool staging of the event. How much more effective it would have been to let Latifah actually belt that song out live. Let us hear the crowd go from scared silence to awed appreciation to hoots and hollers as Bessie strides back to that stage. Then let that band kick in and play some damn music.

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The story seems pitched at a matter of fact TV Movie level. It could have aimed higher. It’s entirely too glossy. The production values seem to trample the characters and the story. Even the intimate parts are followed by giant exclamation points. The music is good enough when it could have been incredible. What we do have though is two modern day performers connecting rather well with two larger than life singers from the twenties. Much of the background to these women is given short shrift. The men and lady lovers are only shadows. But if you’ll let the story step aside, and let go of most of the supporting players you will find these two women and what we do get to see of them rather compelling.

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Video – 1.85:1
The film looks perfect. However it is far too nice and pretty looking for its own good. Very little of it if any looks like the era it’s intends to portray.

Audio – DTS 5.1 in English and French, DTS 2.0 in Latin Spanish. Subtitles offered in English SDH, French and Latin Spanish.
All dialogue is clear. The various bands and singers have been recorded faithfully. To my taste the production sounds far too modern and clean. It lacks the presence of the live scenes that we are being shown. How loud did these bands sound then? Were they in a pit or onstage with her? When did Bessie start using a microphone?

Extras – Bessie: A Creative Journey.
These are basically promotional pieces done for HBO to publicize the film. At one point we faintly hear director Dee Ress asking the director of photography to try using a hand held camera on a scene. What follows is a quick look at some state of the art cameras mounted on booms, balanced with complex gyroscopes, dipping in and out of the sets. It looks like a huge very expensive Hollywood production with tons of people and lots of equipment. Some of the actors including Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, Mike Epps and Michael Kenneth Williams come off very well.

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

Blue-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good

Devil Hunter (1980) / Cannibal Terror (1981) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

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Stars – Devil Hunter -Ursula Fellner, Al Cliver, Robert Foster and Gisela Hahn
Cannibal Terror – Robert Foster, Pamela Stanford and Burt Altman

Directors – Jess Franco, Alain Deruelle

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Neither of these films will deliver the kind of gut bucket punch people expect from the original spate of cannibal movies such as Cannibal Ferox or Cannibal Holocaust. Devil Hunter is about a blonde movie star model who gets kidnapped and held for ransom. Both the party holding her for ransom and the smaller rescue group become victims of the local tribe that sacrifices people to their very low budget cannibal god. The gore content is surprisingly low here with shoddy effects. There is not much in the way of a plot here at all. You’ve got three attractive women in peril and a small slew of actors that don’t appear to know much of what is going on. There is one fight on a cliff and several scenes of the tribe carrying women around hanging from a long pole.

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The gang of cannibals looks more like the hey who wants to be in my movie gang. Apparently anyone can be in this one. There are all races, colors and sizes in this group. Very equal opportunity but not so realistic. The gore quotient despite the advertising and expectations in this sub genre are barely met. We may see the creepy god-guy descend on a victim but there is very little actual rending of flesh. Usually we get a quick cut to an out of focus close up of his mouth with something like part of a hot dog in there.  The group scenes are handled pretty much the same way though they do have at some spaghetti and ropey looking intestines.

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A brief word about that cannibal god. The make up on his eyes looks like a cross between a bug eyed effect and an omelet. We see him lope around with full frontal nudity. After his victims are tied to an big wooden “X” he gropes them a bit and then appears to munch away on their stomach. It’s hard to tell as things go out of focus very quickly. There is a great deal of nudity on display and a simulated rape in there, too.

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Cannibal Terror is the second feature in the set. The main purpose this one serves in the collection is to make the other one look better by comparison. This is barely even terrible. Several folks kidnap a girl and hide out in the jungle where the cannibals can get them. There is an awful lot of badly dubbed talking and not very much action. The gore and nudity quotient are quite low on this one. If there were an exploitation license required the union rep might send this back for more filming before release.  While Devil Hunter has its share of merits the second feature falls far short. Cannibal completists  will need to check these out . Those new to the genre are urged to supplement this serving with some of the staples of the genre to ensure a good meal.

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Video – 1.85:1
Touted as Full HD resolution, Uncut and Restored from the original negatives. The transfers appear to have been done well however some of that original footage is on the poor side. In Devil Hunter, some of the footage in the beginning has a haze about it. There is a slight fogging as if you were looking through a filter or maybe a stocking. This only happens intermittently in some of the outside scenes. Sometimes though it looks like the old Vaseline on the lens trick is being used. The outer edges of the shot are all smudgy and out of focus but that middle area is clear. Very trippy. The rest of the film is free of this trick. It looks decent.

Audio — English dubbed 2.0, Cannibal Terror also has a French Dubbed 2.0
The dubbing is suitably atrocious as you’d expect. Fans of this sub genre will be quite used to it by now.

Extras – Devil Hunter – Interview With Director Jess Franco,
Cannibal Terror – The Way Of All Flesh – Interview With Director Alain Deruelle aka Allan W Steeve, Spirit of the B Hive: An Interview with Bertrand Altman, Spicy Deleted Scene, Theatrical Trailer,

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

Blue-Ray – Excellent transfers of Poorly shot films.

Movies – Fair

Lost After Dark Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

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Stars – Kendra Timmins, Justin Kelly, Robert Patrick, Eve Harlow, Stefan James, Mark Wiebe
Director – Ian Kessner

Released by Anchor Bay

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This one gets it right. Lost After Dark is a throwback to the eighties slasher films with a cast that you care about, good scares, nice practical effects and a few genuine surprises.  Right from the prologue we can see that the film has been crafted to look like an old print from the era. There is some dust and speckles but nothing overdone. Director Kessner uses it as a seasoning to whet your palate. We meet a bunch of kids from the local high school. There is a well meaning but overprotective parent and Robert Patrick (The Faculty) as a tough as nails teacher who will let nothing get by him. It is the night of the big school dance and these kids highjack the school bus to drive off for a fun night at the cabin of one of the girls. One the way the bus breaks down and leaves them stranded.  It is a classic collection. There is Adrienne the good girl who has never done anything like this before. There is the rich obnoxious kid whose father owns the town. His dumb blonde girlfriend and more. We recognize them all. When the fat kid offers to take a walk to see if he can find a house nearby the cool girl offers to walk with him. He has a crush on her and the attention lights him up. She says she is just walking with him cause he always has the good dope and because she thinks he is cool. They light up, chat and walk.  The acting is done well enough that all of this works very well. We get to know them as individuals and pick up on the group dynamics very quickly.

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Naturally they all wind up for the night at a deserted farmhouse. The place is dilapidated and run down. It’ll do just for the night if it has to. There is a backs story about some crazy folk that lived there but that was long ago and they’ve all been killed, right? There were generally two basic types of slasher killers. The ones with the masks like Freddy and Jason. The others were dirty greasy inbreed types that had been living out in the woods too long. The is one of those. He’s tall, hairy, disheveled but he moves quick. The first kill is a complete surprise and will get you but good. When one of the kids is tied up to the outside wall of the barn with barbed wire we can feel his pain. These are old school practical effects and they look great. There are a few very creative kills and one in particular that will leave you squirming in your seat.

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With Lost After Dark you just feel that you are in good hands. The casualties start mounting and you try to figure who will be left. There are some nice twists with that expectation as well as some humor. The blonde whimpers while they are all huddled together in fear that she does not want to be eaten by a cannon ball. If you loved these kinds of films you can trust that this is a quality thrill ride. It delivers.

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Video – 1.78:1
The presentation of the movie is top notch. Colors and black levels all look great. You have to have that in a film like this with so many dark scenes. The faux eighties look works remarkably well, too. The only misstep is a burned frame in the projector trick that pushes it too much. That only lasts a very brief moment though.

Audio – Dolby True HD 5.1 with subtitles offered in English SDH and Spanish
The soundtrack is effective and impressive. Levels move up and down in a nice dynamic fashion. All dialogue is clear.

Extras – None
…and that’s fine. The film speaks well for itself.

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

Blue-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent