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Archive for August, 2017

HICKOK BLU-RAY (2017) REVIEW

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

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Stars – Luke Hemsworth, Trace Atkins, Kriss Kirstofferson, Bruce Bern*Director -Timothy Woodward Jr. * Released by Cinedigm*Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

There has been a little bit of a resurgence in westerns lately thanks to Cinedigm. Country music star Trace Adkins has been in a few including two last year – Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story and Traded.  Now he is in this one directed by the same man who did Traded. Adkins comes off very natural and stays within his acting range. He’s got a nice presence and is very easy to like, even if he does play a bad guy here. The last two were no bad but this one kind of falls a bit flat thanks to a poor story and a lackluster bit of direction. Bruce Dern and Kris Kristofferson are fine actors. But here they are so low key that they don’t really help to move things along that well. Michael Pare and Tom Sizemore were more fun in Traded. Hickok is saddled with a bland TV movie look and not a whole lot of good momentum

Hickcock is played by a man who looks just like Thor from The Avengers movies. Luke Hemsworth is the older brother of Chris who does indeed play Thor. Luke is also on the HBO series Westworld. He’s a likeable enough fellow. Hickok is a legendary gunslinger who comes into town and gets a short stint as the town sheriff ,a role western fans know as The Town Tamer. He meets an old girl friend, gets on the bad side of Trace’s character who runs the saloon and the whole town. It’s not until half way through the picture when another gunfighter comes into town that he has anyone to really play with. He calls this guy Little Arkansas, makes him the deputy and the two of them have some fun conversation and some nice gunfights to clean up the town. That kind of uneasy buddy buddy thing has been down a lot but it’s still fun. These two have a nice rapport but it’s not enough and it is way too late in the film. The film also suffers from a very obvious cheapness. There are few people, few sets and most everything look like it was shot quickly. In the hands of an inventive B director sometimes that lack of budget lets them get away with being very creative. That’s not the case here. Cheap just looks cheap. While Hickok is only an ok film I am still pleased to see some more westerns being make. I’ll walk into the local saloon and order a beer to watch a decent western anytime. It’s only fair that you have to watch a few so-so ones to get to the good ones.

Video – 2.40:1
While the transfer is rendered perfectly the very digital looking picture is generally flat. There is little depth or creativity to the shots here. There is plenty of good detail and sharp images on display. Every color picked looks likely just as intended. It’s just a rather flat looking film with not a lot going on visually. The film is presented on two discs, Blu-Ray and 4K Ultra HD. The Blu-ray is the one reviewed here.

Audio – 5.1DTS-HD with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is easy follow.

Extras – “The Road to Abilene: The Making of Hickok, 3 deleted scenes.
The featurette is a pretty bland bit of promotion.

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

Blu-Ray – Fair

Movie – Fair

ROWAN AND MARTIN”S LAUGH-IN THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (1968) DVD REVIEW

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

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*Stars – Dan Rowan, Dick martin , Goldie Hawn,
* Released by Time Life*Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This was one of those shows that the whole family would sit together and watch. It dominated the Television landscape when it premiered in the late sixties and held on well for a while. The format of the show was wall to wall fast moving comedy. There were tons of quick black out bits. Sketches rarely ran longer than a few minutes. Sometimes a bit like Dick Martin painting a stencil label on a door would be revisited several times in one episode. Other bits were so well received they became regular parts of every show. Poor Judy Carne would announce it’s Sock It To Me Time and then get pelted with a huge boxing glove, doused with water or any number of assaults while the audience track howled with laughter. Rock act The Strawberry Alarm Clock appeared in the first show but they were seen dressed in yellow rain slickers as they demolished a car in an early music video rather than playing their song. That kind of thing was quickly dropped from the show. The only times we saw any kind of structured music was with the purposely inept singing and dancing that would introduce the News Across The nation Segment. The breakneck pace of this show was truly inventive for the time.

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Rowan and Martin had a variation on the straight man and loony routine that seemed inspired by the kind of thing that Burns and Allen used to do. Martin could be very silly and capable of delivering a wacky shaggy dog story about an obscure relative at the drop of a hat.  The famous Goodnight Dick sign off was apparently created to get him to stop and  let him know the show was really going to be over now. Dan Rowan kept things on course and smoked constantly. He‘s got a cigarette going with him in every single scene he is in. It’s fun to keep track of as he frequently gets caught with too much ash or a finished butt with no where to put it so he just holds it off to the side. There is a bevy of guest stars that literally drop in for one or two lines. It was quite a big deal when President Richard Nixon came on to say, “Sock it to me?”

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The show holds up well. I found myself laughing out loud several times. Sure a lot of it is pretty hokey but none of it is played with any seriousness at all. People seem on the verge of losing it all the time. A very young Goldie Hawn affects a completely clueless personality. Those who know the show will get a real kick out of seeing Henry Gibson’s poetry with a flower pot bits, Ruth Buzzi’s old lady with the deadly hand bag, Artie Johnson falling down or doing his very interesting bit. It’s interesting to note that not that many from the cast went on to bigger fame. Barbara Feldon had The TV show, Get Smart, Henry Gibson was in a few Robert Altman movies. Eileen Brennan had Private Benjamin and lots of TV work but the real breakout star from the show that we all recognize today was Goldie Hawn. She won an Academy Award as best supporting actress in Cactus Flower (1969) while still a regular on the show. She parlayed kooky into quite a career.  Laugh-In remains a fun show. It set the stage for many other different types of comedy shows to follow.

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Video – 1.33:1 TV format
Four Discs with the complete first season,
Despite the written preface that lets us know this is the best that could be done with the exiting materials the look of the show is a bit of a let down. Laugh-In featured such vibrant and bold colors that it is a shame that the dullish presentation does not do them justice. This is still entirely watch able and easy to enjoy. It is just not up to the average look that most TV shows from the era have received It’s better than watching it with rabbit ears back in the day but not quite as good and sharp as we’d like.

Audio – Mono
The sound is just like it used to be coming through your single TV speaker. All the jokes and nice and strong and up front while the music gets a bit tinny at times.

Extras – The rare Laugh-In pilot episode, 25th Anniversary Cast Reunion Highlights, New interview with creator and executive producer George Schlatter, Laugh-In Bloopers

The interview with producer Schlatter has a lot of interesting stories about how the show was launched, patrolled by censors and the unexpected huge success. He an affable man who was genuinely surprised to find himself producing such a runaway hit. Schlatter gives credit to the editor for helping to create the new format. The reunion is too much like a bland TV special rather than a more relaxed and revealing peek behind the scenes.
Don Rickles has a series of bloopers that show how quick he was with an adl lib and how much fun he had with other actors and the crew while he worked.

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

DVD – Fair / Good

TV Series – Excellent

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966)) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

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Stars – Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach * Director- Sergio Leone
* Released by Kino Studio Classics*Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Good – The restored mono audio sounds fantastic! That American theatrical cut is back the way we remember it!* The Not So Bad – The look of the film is far less yellow than it used to be. To be fair it looks pretty great although that might not be the kind of great you were expecting. The Ugly – The extras ported over from the DVD set are all out of whack. They have a staccato movement and the quality is rendered very poorly.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is many people’s idea of the best western ever made, at least the best Spaghetti Western. It is an immensely satisfying experience to take in. Director Sergio Leone serves this up with a very apparent love of American Westerns. He delivers on the action. He gives us such cool characters with plenty of memorable lines. There are so many little bits to be cherished. When Eli Wallach goes into a gun shop he has the proprietor lays out all of the best six guns. He takes several apart. He looks through the barrels. He rolls the cylinders back and forth between his hands as he listens to them. He then builds his own pistol from the best parts. The last time we saw an actor do this kind of intense scene stealing gun fetish stuff was when Steve McQueen rode out to the graveyard with Yul Brynner at the beginning of The Magnificent Seven (1960). McQueen shook a shotgun shell to his ear to see if they were ok. If you love westerns you eat this stuff up! Lee Van Cleef has that pipe and the steely eyes. Leone gives his actors plenty of extreme close ups. Clint Eastwood has that classic catch phrase. Even though it is dubbed in afterwards we can still appreciate the long pause he takes before he simply says, “…yeah”. Word was he used to cross most of his lines out of the script. All three leads do their own voices and it makes a real difference to hear them. Even though Leone creates an epic tale set against the civil war on an operatic scale he still stays true to the things that make westerns work. Along the way though there is an artfulness and a majesty that elevates this picture to one of the greats. When you add in Ennio Morricone’s amazing and memorable score this is the full house of all westerns that just can’t be beat.

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I want to get this story in because it was where I fell in love with this film. Back in the late sixties there was a theatre on Broadway that had an incredible multiple bill. They advertised it in the papers as Spend The Day With Clint Eastwood. Four films were shown: Hang ’Em High (1968), Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966). This was likely done to help extend the revenue for Hang ‘Em High. As kids we were used to seeing the James Bond double bills like From Russia With Love and Dr. No. but this was four pictures. Clint’s new one and the Dollar trilogy. This was a Sunday in the dead of Winter. Brutally cold. It had to have started early, well before 10:00 AM. My buddy and I had these ridiculously big winter coats on. We stopped off at a Blimpie’s and got subs, a bottle of soda and chips. The sandwiches went down the inside of the sleeve. You couldn’t move your arm but the sub was hidden. Sodas went in the left pockets and chips in the right. Don’t push me on my right side, man, I got chips in there. We got our tickets without being spotted as smugglers. Hang ‘Em High was ok but seeing the three others in a row like that was magical. By the end we had that move down. Throw your poncho over you shoulder, adjust the stogie cigarette in your mouth, give that stare and wait,…. Then say, “…Yeah” So cool. The length of that four picture show was long but we really had gone on an adventure of epic proportions with Tucco, Angel Eyes and Blondie. So much of that imagery and the sweeping soundtrack were imbedded inside our growing cinema souls. The extreme close ups of the eyes and those long vistas of open space made an impression. I’ll never forget though the rush that came with seeing Tucco running madly through the graveyard at the end. The background of gravestones went by him so fast they became a blur. The edits came faster and faster. The music swelled. The trumpet cut right through you. Spending a day with Clint Eastwood and seeing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly that day became a milestone. Kids don’t normally devote that kind of time to movies but we did. And that day they became so much more than movies.

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Video – 2.35:1
Without a doubt Kino has dialed back the offending boost that the yellows got in the last 4K transfer. Others colors have been reigned in, too. On that front things are fine. In fact the film looks great. The only quibble would be it might not be everyone’s idea of what great is. The film is much more naturalistic looking. It is almost modern in the way it has been muted and toned down. Detail is very strong. Black levels behave fine. Grain though still plenty apparent is not out of hand at all. Previous versions before the last 4K Blu-ray had a brighter level throughout. That brighter look fits my recollections of seeing the film on screen better. The look in the MGM 2009 Blu-Ray feels close in those terms. There are other aspects of that transfer that look better here. I wish I could lay out these different transfers on a table just like Eli Wallach did with the pistols and put together my favorite parts.
* This is the first offering in Blu-Ray of the US theatrical cut from a 4K transfer. There are few minor discrepancies in the theatrical cut. They did not affect my enjoyment of it at all. Kino has done the best they could with this and it works fine.

Audio – Newly Restored 2.0 Mono Audio, Italian Dolby 2.0 Mono, English 5.1 DTS with subtitles offered in English

So much has been said about how this film looks that I feel like I want to leap up on a desk and shout , “Just listen to that mono mix!” Sure the look of the film is very important but so much of my experience with it came from the soundtrack. The mono track is robust and with a good rig delivers in spades. Morricone’s score ebbs and swells throughout. The combination of surf guitar, solo whistling, choral voices, orchestration and that lone trumpet is nothing short of magnificent. Then you add in the dubbed voices of the lead actors in a way that we have all come to recognize so well. But the real cherry on top is those echoey pistol and gun shots. This is one of the things that makes this film so iconic. The cannon blasts also get this treatment. Listening to this film is the movie equivalent of Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound in rock n’ roll. He used to call them his symphonies for the kids. Ennio Morricone’s score and the elements that make up the sound effects combine to give us one for the ages. I love this new mono track!

Extras – New Audio Commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas, New Trailers From Hell” with Ernest Dickerson, Alternate Scene: The Optical Flip, Deleted Scene 1: Skeletons in the Desert, Deleted Scene 2: Extended Torture Scene, GBU on the: animated behind-the-scenes image gallery, Promoting GBU: Posters & Lobby Cards animated image gallery, Sergio Leone Westerns: Original Theatrical Trailers

The following extras were ported over from the DVD box set. They were also included in the MGM Blu-Ray box and single editions :Audio Commentary By Acclaimed Film Historian Richard Schickel, Audio Commentary By Noted Cultural Historian Christopher Frayling

These  other extras were done at the wrong speed and don’t work well at all : Leone’s West: Making Of Documentary , The Leone Style: On Sergio Leone Featurette , The Man Who Lost The Civil War: Civil War Documentary , Reconstruction The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, II Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Featurette, Deleted Scenes.

The new commentary from Tim Lucas is loaded with info. I have not gotten through it yet but always enjoy his contributions. The Trailers From Hell bit is short and fun. The previous film extras included some excellent interviews with Christopher Frayling but were done at the wrong speed so you can’t really enjoy them.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent for the Mono sound and the Theatrical version.
Very Good for the overall look. Excellent for the new extras
and Poor for the older ones that were ported over

Movie – Classic

BARTON FINK (1998) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

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Stars – John Turutrro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner * Director- Joel Coen
* Released by Kino Studio Classics*Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Coen Brothers seem to have a habit of alternately making good pictures and weird pictures. This is one of the weird ones but it is very good. Barton Fink has just had a hit on Broadway. It’s the forties and when Hollywood calls you run. Barton runs but he carries with him lots of trepidation, suspicion and a total lack of confidence. When he gets there Michael Lerner play the big cigar chomping studio boss to the hilt. He welcomes the boy, showers him with praise then gives him a wrestling picture to write for Wallace Beery. Once back as his hotel and staring at his typewriter Barton is unable to write. He suffers a bad case of writers block and the continual interruptions of his next door neighbor at the hotel. John Goodman is an outgoing gregarious salesman who always has drink ready and a big smile.

What strikes you right off the bat is the tremendous attention to detail that went into every aspect of this film. The hotel lobby takes you back in time. The colors, the furniture, the textures, and the costumes all look perfectly period and very real. We get these shots of the long empty hall on the floor where Barton is staying. Shoes are lined up outside everyone’s door to be polished. Steve Buscemi collects them on this wooden cart that rattles and shimmies with just the right touch. The actors and script draw a lot from real life. Aspects of writers Cifford Odets and William Faulkner who were seduced to work in Hollywood inhabit John Turutrro and John Mahoney’s performances. Every time Michael Lerner behaves in his over the top fashion he seems to be channeling Louis B Meyer or several others types. There is a classic Film Noir set up poured into the film that leaves Barton with a woman in his bed. He probably, no definitely should not have slept with her. Now she is dead and trouble is coming. The Coen brothers literally heat up he hotel. The thick wallpaper starts to peel off the walls. It gets very surreal. When detectives question Barton about the dead girl theysuggest that his pal next door just could be a serial killer with a habit of decapitating and sawing body parts off of his victims. Things spiral out of control in a whirlpool that is capped off by a huge fire in the hotel. Then there is that postcard that shows a lady sitting at the beach.

Some people may just reject the entire bizarre story. Others are free to concoct whatever works for them to see their way through the wacky tale. For me basically when Barton encounters a bad case of writers block and is unable to write anything past the first two sentences of a script we spend the next two hours inside his head as his mind rolls on. His more than fertile imagination conjures up a twisted and paranoid landscape. It’s a nice irony that for someone who supposedly cannot think up a simple plot to a wrestling movie he has no trouble spinning a tale that moves easily from illicit sex and severed heads to an entire hotel burning down around him. This is a beautifully made film with well thought out and executed acting from a wonderful cast. The other part of Barton Fink that really deserve your attention is the extraordinary soundtrack. There is a wealth of effects that go from the various sounds that feet make on floors and carpets to the parade of lunatics whose crying, coughing, wheezing, throwing up and lovemaking plague Barton during the picture. The sound shifts from irritating to intriguing so that by the last third of the film your ears have been set up to behave like twin detectives alert and prepared to pick up the subtle nuances on the track. Those who have a sound system as part of their home set up will really appreciate this. Even on a stereo TV the track will make you sit up and take notice. I am a big fan of creative soundscapes. It can add so much to a film. This one is flat out amazing.

Video – 1.66:1
The transfer works fine for this film. Detail is strong. Black levels are deep without any problem. Grain is readily apparent but never appears out of hand. The acid test for me is how a Blu-Ray renders fire. The hotel fire at the end of this look looks great. There is a good balance of the various flame colors, the smoke and the brightness. The long shots of the flame on either side of the long hallway look terrific.

Audio – DTS-HD Master 2.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
Even though just stereo the soundscape is incredible. We hear the insidious noises that seem to assault poor Barton throughout the film. There is someone crying in the next room when he is trying to go to sleep, someone throwing up in the bathroom stall at work and then some Olympian love making going on in another hotel room. We hear people inhaling loudly. There is often the swoosh of air coming in as a door is opened. The sound of feet walking on various surfaces always gets attention. Later on when Barton goes out to a nightclub to celebrate the sound of the big band playing hot jazz is loud and sassy. The brass section really shines. It is a delight to experience the work that obviously went into creating this sound design

Extras – - Interview with star John Turturro, – Interview with actor Michael Lerner
- Interview with producer Ben Barenholtz, – Interview with composer Carter Burwell
- Interview with sound editor Skip Lievsay, 8 Deleted Scenes, – Original theatrical trailer

Tuturro comes off very thoughtful. He measures his answers and his words. He’s thoroughly engrossing to listen to. We get a nice insight to the way he works as an actor and interacts with his directors. Michael Lerner is a hoot. He is over the top and will launch into various impressions at the drop of a hat. He’s a natural storyteller and a delight to spend time with. The guy is pretty outspoken, too!  Also of note is the interview with the composer and sound designer. They talk about how they divvied up the sounds – some done by effects, others by instruments.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent