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Archive for November, 2016

Moby Dick (1956) Blu-Ray Review

Monday, November 28th, 2016

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Stars – Richard Baseheart, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Leo Genn, Harry Andrews, Friedrich von Ledebur

Director – John Huston

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at Screenarchives.com and Twilighttimemovies.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The indelible image in John Huston’s version of Moby Dick, for me is not the whale, nor Captain Ahab. It is Orson Welles delivering a sermon for the ages from a unique pulpit. This takes place very early on in the picture. We’ve seen Richard Baseheart traipsing across the countryside asking us to call him Ishmael. He has a dink at the local tavern and joins in singing the sea shanties and other songs. He’d met the strange tattoo covered Queequeg and the two have pledged to set out on a whaling vessel, Captain Ahab’s Pequod. Director John Huston gives us precious little time on land. He’s not at all concerned with setting up this New England whaling town set on the seaside. When we first go inside the church Huston pans along the walls so we can see the various plaques well enough to read them. Someone was lost at sea. There is a list of crew members who disappeared with a ship. But the vast majority of the deaths were cased by whales. After we are settled in with a good look at the congregation Welles as Father Maple makes his entrance. He strides down a hallway and unfurls a rope ladder, much like the ones you’d see on the sides of ships. He easily ambles up the rope and takes the pulpit. Unlike any other pulpit you’ve ever seen this one is built like the prow of a ship. He looks out over his audience as if he is scanning the seas. He often refers to his congregation as mates. He intones a serious sermon but refrains from a bombastic tone. Welles modulates his reading so well. As you watch him coax these mellifluous pronunciations out of the words you can’t help but think he is sending this next ship The Pequod out for its final voyage. It is a benediction for unmitigated disaster. Another plaque will soon join the others on the wall.

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The quality of Orson Welles’ performance is so fitting so a number of reasons. The chief one being the fact that the acting is the best part of the film that unfolds. Though we go though the motions of setting sail and a few other things to keep the boat all ship shape we never get a real strong sense of being at sea. Instead it is the attitudes of the sailors on board that convey the strange devotion to the arduous task of going whaling often for years at a time. When we first see Gregory Peck as Ahab with his stove pipe hat and beard you can’t help but think of him as Abraham Lincoln with a peg leg. His acting is fine. His line readings have character but Peck is not fearsome enough and that hurts his portrayal. Much of the dialogue and interaction between the crew has this larger than life quality to it. It often feels like lines from a book being read, albeit read well. The talk is too mannered for things to feel comfortable. Perhaps this was the intention. Others film have this kind of dialogue but they flow much better.  Many times during the film when events have turned dire for the crew Peck gathers them around the ship’s mast and delivers a powerful motivational speech often caped off by a hearty drink. His sharing of a beer or whatever the brew is feels very forced. Still there are many performances that stand out. Harry Andrews with his funny looking cap plays the quintessential New England sailor to the hilt. He is full of bravado and exudes an earthy camaraderie with all on board. Leon Genn as Starbuck does an able job trying to keep order. At one point when it is clear Ahab will go after this white whale forsaking all hopes of making money on the voyage his character suggests mutiny to a few others. Friedrich von Ledebur as the mysterious Queeqoeg looks and behaves almost otherworldly. Baseheart holds steady as the lone witness to all of this. He gets across that he so wants to believe in Captain Ahab. He is yearning for a successful and mythic voyage.

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Lastly a thought or two about that whale. It is in a word – terrible. We mostly see the side of the creature. Due to the photographic process used by DP Oswald Morris any texture the skin may have had is washed out. The signature move of a whale with that huge tail slapping down on the sea or maybe a small boat is never exploited. We just see it way in the distance or chugging along like a rounded barge. It is never seen underwater where we’d be able to get a good look at the massive beast. That may be intentional. For the interaction with the men in the ocean at the end miniatures are used. The man who did the special effects August Lohman worked on films like The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters. The Bowery Boys films are great fun but not where you’d look to find an F/X person to build the mighty Moby Dick. At one point in the film we see this rigidly constructed mouth with rows of teeth on either side come down like a gangplank or the underside or a large puppet. By 1956 special effects were much more capable of handling giant monsters than this film took advantage of. Eiji Tsuburaya’s work with miniatures in Godzilla (Gojira 1954) was spectacular. The giant ants constructed for Them! (1954) got the job done nicely. Perhaps the most incredible work done in the field was by Ray Harryhausen. What he did with Mighty Joe Young (1949) and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was just jaw dropping. The Beast even had some scenes done in the water. What really boggles the mind is that he was a good friend of the co-writer of Moby Dick, Ray Bradbury.  Looking back we can see that Ray was exceedingly busy then. Perhaps he was asked and preferred to generate his own projects. In short the whale could have looked a whole lot better.
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For getting the Herman Melville story told the more recent version in 1998 with Patrick Stewart as Ahab succeeds better. Gregory Peck even played the part of Father Maple in that one. If one has seen it you can’t help but consider Ron Howard’s film In The Heart of The Sea (2015). In that one we see Herman Melville researching the actual story that inspired him to write Moby Dick. Though I am not a fan of CGI the whale featured there looked outrageously good. Huston’s Moby Dick may not be entirely successful but it is one you have to see. It reaches beyond its grasp in a number of areas but much remains that is worthwhile.

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Video – 1.66:1
A lot of work went into recreating the look of the film that was intended by DP Oswald Morris and director John Huston.  They wanted to recreate the style of artwork from the actual Moby Dick area that depicted whales and massive ships at sea. It has a very washed out denatured texture. Colors are largely denuded. There are times when the contrast is so tweaked that it feels like an old school videotape. Images appear very flat. For realizing the intentions of the artists involved this new blu-ray presentation gets major kudos. Many years later in 1971 cinemaphotographer Vilmos Zsigmond used an experimental “flashing” technique to create a palate for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. For my taste that worked and this one falls short. About twenty years after Moby Dick Oswald Morris shot The Man Who Would be King for Huston. It is a glorious looking adventure that presents a wide variety of locations in breathtaking colors and textures. The two worked together a lot. (the images in this review were not taken from the blu-ray)

Audio – DTS-HD MA 1.0 wit subtitles offered in English SDH
Dialogue comes across strong. Voice-overs area easily understandable.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature Isolated Score Track / Commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman / A Bleached Whale: Recreating the Unique Color of Moby Dick / Posters, lobby cards & production stills / Original theatrical trailer

The feature that details how the color scheme was realized is fascinating. Make sure you check out the poster and lobby card file that includes two every early versions of the tale.
With the 1956 version you can see how prominent the whale and action elements are in the advertising.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good or Excellent depending on how you like your White Whales done.

Speed Sisters (2015) DVD Review

Monday, November 28th, 2016

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Stars – Mona Ali, Noor Dauod, Maysoon Jayyusi, Betty Saadeh, Marah Zahalka
Director – Amber Fares

Released by First Run Features

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This documentary runs over stereotypes even before it gets out of first gear. We follow a group of five women who race cars in The Middle East. We see how much they have to go through to get a workable car and then get it up to racing condition. They do not race in professional track with grandstands and scores of adoring fans like we see here. Their field is a strategically designed series of traffic cones. They have to circle around, zig zag past and blast through a specific path. They get a map before each race. The devotion these women have to the sport is fearsome. We see them drive past military check points in search of an area where they can cut loose and practice. This is the West bank, a war zone. One of them gets shot at and another talks about taking a bullet in the shoulder. Almost casually another one says life must go on.

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They sport long hair. Two are blondes. The grandmother of one racer chidingly asks her why she won’t tie her hair back and cover up. Her friends are all talking. The racing granddaughter flicks her hair and asks if she loves her. Of course she does. One lady’s dad is her biggest fan. He puts off getting a house for his family so he can get a better car for her. At one point when that new car tears up the course he screams 481 horsepower and pumps his fist in the air. None of this is what I pictured what life would be like for a woman there. It is so genuinely spirited. One blonde racer has mastered the art of giving an interview and courts the media beautifully. The international sports world covers them. The passion and the competition take a toll on them though. One is convinced there is a bias against her in one community. The rivalry between these different cities, towns and nearby countries is palpable.

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Amber Faers’ Speed Sisters is a tribute to these women, their skills and their spirit. Within moments of watching this impossible sport in country in where explosions are commonplace your head gets turned around. One of the wonderful things a good documentary can do is to take you someplace you have never been and show you things you’ve never seen. The sight of these women blasting along in their cars is just plain exhilarating and plainly moving.

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Video – 1.85:1
The footage is all clear. We get to see the towns and the countryside and small groups of soldiers collected together along the edges.

Audio – Stereo with embedded English Subtitles
All the dialogue gets clear and easy to follow subtitles. We do occasionally hear someone speaking English. The soundtrack rocks and gives the kind of propulsion a film about racing needs.

Extras – There were none on the press screener I had but that may be different on the
Retail DVD release

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

DVD – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Boxcar Bertha (1972) Blu-Ray Review

Monday, November 28th, 2016

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Stars – David Carradine, Barbara Hershey, Barry Primus, Bernie Casey
Director – Martin Scorsese

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This was the second feature film that Scorsese did as a director. After completing Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) he worked in the business in other capacities. He was an editor on Woodstock (1970) among many other things. Long gone from the days of making a student film, no longer a fledgling independent filmmaker, he is tasked here with shooting fast and making good on a budget. Working for Roger Corman he delivers a solid gangster movie based on the true life exploits of a woman who turned to crime during the depression. The violence is bloody and powerful There is nudity. The two lead characters thumb their nose at authority with one of them a real political rabble rouser. David Carradine’s Big Bill Shelly character make impromptu speeches urging the exploited workers to unionize. He even donates money from their hold ups to the union. Not only did this fit the story well but these were all dependable ingredients to any of the more successful films that Corman directed or produced. The films had to be entertaining. They had to move fast with either violence, explosions or nudity making an appearance every ten minutes. Corman also loved to put in characters that reflected the attitudes of the times. He liked to reflect something of the current political or social climate in his pictures. Roger Corman famously said to someone who was directing for him – Do a good job and you won’t have to direct for me again. John Cassavettes who was a revered pioneer in the artful independent film movement as well as a successful actor gave the young Scoresese a piece of advice after he saw Boxcar Bertha. He told him you can go on making films for someone else, or you can decide to make the film that you want to make, put yourself out there. Scorsese followed this one with Mean Streets and a career that has been very meaningful indeed. The value of a film like Boxcar Bertha remains though. It is a thrilling and enjoyable ride that often reaches for a bit more that the exploitive gangster flick it is. Can you please both masters?

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As you watch the film you’ll see that the shots are so very controlled. It is a period piece and the budget would never allow for large expanses of depression era scenery and buildings. The opening scenes in the field with Bertha’s dad being forced to fly his damaged crop duster plane take full advantage of the open area. The fields looked the same then as they do now. Once the story progresses we have a small hobo camp, a closed down empty factory of some sort and some great shots involving a train. There are several interiors, too. These few locations combine to put us solidly in the 1920’s era. The script does jump very conveniently around. Bertha’s small four person crew manages to find each other no matter where they get sent when they are arrested. The prison farm the guys are sent to seems to be right down the road from the last scene. Bertha can bust them out without having to even use a road map.

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After Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was such a big hit Corman had immediate success with The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (also a Twilight Time release). A few years later Corman directed Bloody Mama with Shelly Winters and had another hit on his hands. The need for another lady gangster pic got Barbara Hershey the lead as the sultry and fiercely independent Bertha. Her Bertha was a far cry from Jane Fonda’s railroad robbing Cat Ballou. Though she is cute and charming there are some seedy elements of her life that are found in the film. Toward the end she works as a prostitute in a run down brothel. Scorsese makes a cameo as a customer with a fifteen dollar request to spend the night with her. Lonely guy. Lonely girl.

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Scorsese gets the job done without a lot of his usual camera movements and flourishes. There is a scene in a tunnel with bertha’s crew running that is shot very interestingly. The whole sequence at the end is also rather remarkable. Big Bill gets crucified to a train car that slowly pulls away from the crying Bertha. She tries to keep up as the train picks up speed pulling her dying man further and further away from him. When Bernie Casey comes back with a shot gun to blast some revenge Scorsese uses some very effective zooms and camera angles to give the sequence more impact. There is no doubt that the film is put together very well, right down the evocative soundtrack. It is must see for Scorsese fans and also works quite well as a low budget gangster flick. Much has been rightly made of the people that attended what’s been called Roger Corman’s film school.
Anyone with a hunger and thirst for film that spent time working for Roger Corman came away with a very grounded ability to get things done. When we all go see Scorsese’s new film, The Silence (2016) you can bet he used a trick or two that he learned on the job with Roger.

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Video – 1.85:1
The film looks great in this new Blu-Ray. There is still plenty of grain in the picture that sits comfortably in the images. Detail is strong. Black levels are nicely controlled.

Audio – DTS HD MA 1.0 in English with subtitles offered in English SDH

All dialogue is easily understandable. The soundtrack is very nicely done with many passages that stand out.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track , Original theatrical trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) Blu-Ray Review

Friday, November 25th, 2016

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Stars – Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis
Director – Don Coscarelli

Released by Scream / Shout Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Bubba Ho-Tep is one of the greatest What If movies of all time. What if Elvis Presley having grown tired of the whole star routine traded places with his best impersonator?  After a quick visit the tribute becomes the real thing and Elvis is free to do a few low key shows and live the rest of his life as he wishes. Only he falls off the stage, breaks his hip and winds up in a hospital and then a nursing home. No one believes he is The King and he is stuck. His best and only real friend there is Jack Kennedy. What if President John Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and was disguised as a black man? He has to hide out in this rural out of the way nursing home in Texas so none of his enemies will finish him off. He’s even got a scar on the back of his head to prove it. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis bring a believable dose of pathos to the almost adolescent thrill they get out of having to battle an ancient mummy and his army of plus size cockroaches. Elvis says these beetles are as big as a peanut butter banana sandwich. This mummy is claiming the sprits of the residents who can’t defend themselves and it is up to JFK and Elvis to hobble after this evil soul sucking creature to save mankind.

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Director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) found a story by Joe R. Lansdale that allowed him to make, what is for me his best work. Lansdale made his mark in the horror fiction field with vicious thrillers like The Nightrunners (1987) and the short story collection By Bizarre Hands (1987). But it was in The Drive-In: A “B” Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas (1988) that fans got a dose of his wickedly warped sense of humor. He was clearly comfortable in lots of genres but it was when he was able to mix in that loveable sense of dark humor with two fisted action tales that he really began to click with a much larger audience. Savage Season (1990) launched his twisted salt and pepper detective team in a popular series. Bubba Ho-Tep is so much more than any diamond in the rough of a short story. You’d never think anyone could get this kind of a story made into a movie. Coscarelli brings in a first class adaptation that is faithful to the spirit of the story.

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The name of the nursing home is The Shady Rest. That’s the same name as the hotel in the sixties TV series Petticoat Junction (1963-1970). As the film starts we are also treated to a running gag of two fairly inept guys taking body after body out of the home on a stretcher with wheels and attempting to load them into a hearse smoothly. The home itself has long darkly lit hallways. It feels lonely, cold and depressing. There are strongly played horror elements. The mummy make up looks great. He has a frightening death face and is costumed in a cowboy hat that features a snazzy snake skin ribbon. Bubba Ho-Tep as The King refers to him also wears these cowboy boots that give his walking a steady menacing pace. There are oversized bugs that scuttle about the residents’ rooms and creep under their covers at night. The true terror though seems to come from being forgotten and dismissed as some old useless thing that has no more feelings. It is such a sweet touch that when Elvis first comes to Jack Kennedy’s room and helps him out Jack offers him his choice of a candy bar from his personal stash. Forget that there are miniature models of the assassination scene in Dallas. That collection of Baby Ruths and O Henry bars is the true treasure in that room.

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The film has some very clever humor in the way that when the mummy speaks his words appear as ancient hieroglyphics at the bottom of the screen like subtitles including a hilarious translation. The shots of Elvis with his walker and JFK in his electric powered wheelchair hobbling after the mummy with steely eyed determination are played wonderfully. What we get is a most bizarre horror film and a comedy powered by a very wicked and dark sense of humor. The thought will definitely cross your mind about how some elderly folks are just left in poor housing like this to wait for the end to come. Wouldn’t you rather have a friend like Jack Kennedy and a ridiculously strange quest like they do to make you feel alive again? The mummy is a soul sucker and they will not surrender their souls to him. Coscarelli mixes the humor, horror and pathos into a wonderful tale. And how cool are those sunglasses. You knew Elvis would manage to bring those babies with him no matter where he went. When he puts on that jump suit, those glasses and says let’s take care of business – man Elvis is back in the building. He never left! Never Fuck with The King.

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Video – 1.85:1
This is a great looking presentation. Black levels are all strong. The dark colors blend well in the many dimly lit scenes. There is a stand out but with the mummy coming down a dark hallway. He is backlit by a gorgeously positioned set of lights. It is scary but beautiful. Though the film maintains a low key look there is detail to be seen in many case. Elvis’s sunglasses look great.

Audio – DTS-HD 5.1. DTS-HD 2.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is strong. The music that the band we see backing Elvis plays sounds good.
The soundtrack is very effective, too. It is not at all the kinds of thing you might expect but it fits perfectly. In the director’s new interview we learn that he picked Brian Tyler score the film based on the work he did in Six-String Samurai.

Extras – • NEW Audio Commentary with author Joe R. Lansdale
• NEW All is Well – an interview with writer/director Don Coscarelli
• NEW The King Lives! – an interview with star Bruce Campbell
• NEW – Mummies and Make-up – an interview with special effects artist Robert Kurtzman
Commentary by Don Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell, Commentary by “”The King”",
Deleted Scenes with optional commentary by Don Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell,  The Making of Bubba Ho-Tep, To Make A Mummy – Makeup and Effects, Fit for A King – Elvis costuming, Rock Like an Egyptian – Featurette about the Music of Bubba Ho-Tep, Joe R. Lansdale Reads from Bubba Ho-Tep, Archival Bruce Campbell interviews, Music Video, Theatrical Trailer, TV Spot, Still Gallery

The new interviews with Bruce Campbell and Don Coscarelli are great. Campbell has a funny bit about the Elvis suit they had to rent. It’s interesting to hear their different recollections on why a sequel never came about. The older Making Of short that goes into the production detail is also fascinating.

If you have never read anything by Joe R. Lansdale he is well worth a try. The first Drive-In book is a good one. Cold in July rocks! Although anything that strikes your fancy by him will deliver.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic