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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

I AM THE BLUES (2016) DVD REVIEW

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

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Stars – Bobby Rush, Barbara Lynn, Lazy Lester * Director- Daniel Cross
* Released by Film Movement *Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This film takes its time to get where it‘s going. It meanders here and there. It begins by stopping off in front of a dilapidated store front to sit with three guys while they chew the fat and play guitars together. We meet up with Bobby Rush as he drives to a gig. He’s about eighty years old and still working the road. Most of the folks here are in the twilight of their years. They look back on their time working the circuit with occasional brushes with success or playing behind a big name like BB King or Howlin’ Wolf. There is not a distinct narrative or much direction that pulls us along. The film lives and dies by who happens to be in front of the camera at any given moment. Once you sit back though and just get to know these folks, there is a real good time to be had with this film.

At one point Lazy Lester weighs in on what the blues really is. He gets quite explicit with an urgency to his voice. He talks about the BBB and WBB, meaning the White Boy Blues and the Black Boys Blues. Then he laughs and says it is all the same. Lester takes his guitar and gets all serious again. He tells us this is what the blues really is. “I’m going to show you the real blues” Then he plays, Sing Me Back Home” which is a country song written by Merle Haggard. It should be noted that there is a great deal of drinking going on and some of the stories may be embellished or just sound better with a little twist on them. The film moves from acoustic solo guitar sessions to what looks like some kind of big reunion get together for a bunch of these folks who have bumped into each other on the road for many long years. Heaps of crayfish are prepared. People gather at a roadside café type place. Amplifiers, a keyboard and a drum kit get set up. We’re treated to some nice amplified electric blues that starts off with the Peppermint Harris song, I Got Loaded.

A highlight of the film is meeting Barbara Lynn. She’s known as a soul singer who had a hit with , “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” in 1962. It was rare for a woman to write he own material back then let alone play guitar, and left handed at that. She plays beautifully, very melodic and trebly. She reminds me of the way Curtis Mayfield used to play an electric guitar. She sits on a park bench and shows off this gorgeous custom made Gibson with gold inlay with a pattern of roses. The film journeys back to someone’s house where there is some piano playing, some sing-alongs and more story swapping.
It does not appear that these signers and players have retired with the kind of money that rock stars get but they sure seem to still get a helluva kick out of life. I don’t believe some of them are even retired yet. I Am The Blues is neither definitive nor is it particularly well organized. However the music is good, the stories and fun and you come away with a better understanding of the more rural and Hill Country blues scenes and the folks who still keep it going. Here is run down of many of the artists featured – Bobby Rush, Barbara Lynn, Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Little Freddie King, Lazy Lester, Bilbo Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, RL Boyce, LC Ulmer, and Lil’ Buck Sinegal. .

Video – 1.78:1
The photography is generally catch as catch can TV documentary style. Though many of the subject are sitting down which allows for the camera to get locked down and sit steady. Many of the shots caught on the fly like the ones that feature a car buzzing by someone’s driveway to say hello are fun.

Audio – 5.1 Dolby and 2.0 Dolby Digital with subtitles offered in English
The sound varies in quality but is overall very pleasant and well recorded. The film comes back a few times to those three guys in front of the store. That’s some nice playing.

Extras – Additional intimate footage and outtakes with Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Barbara Lynn, Bobby Rush, Little Freddie King .

These are largely extensions of what we already heard save for the one with Allen Toussaint that was not included in the film.

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

DVD – Good

Movie – Good

THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959 ) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

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Stars – James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett, Anna Lee, Victoria Shaw
Director – Samuel Fuller * Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

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

Sam Fuller takes on a lot with this movie. There is the story of a stripper who gets shot down on the streets. She is in her full stage costume running between cars at night when she falls. We learn a lot about Sugar Torch and the act she was working on with a karate man smashing bricks before she begins to peel off her geisha styled kimono. Then there are the two cops assigned to the case, played wonderfully by James Shigeta (Bridge to the Sun) and Glenn Corbett (Route 66, Chisum), These detectives are very tight. The easy going banter between them feels like any number of later day buddy cop pictures. Shigeta in particular has a very natural style. Another character is the alcoholic painter who likes to throw beer on her paintings. Though very kooky she’s like the wise older relative to Corbett who gets advice from her. While there are compelling trips inside Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and quite a bit of time devoted to aspects of the culture there it is Victoria Shaw as Chris the attractive art student witness that sets the film on its main course.

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Both detectives fall for Chris but she falls for James Shigeta. Shigeta has a very tough time with this. He thinks his partner resents him but more for his love crossing a taboo racial line than simply winning the girl. Fuller drills down on this deep seated case of reverse racism. We can feel that the Japanese detective is uncomfortable with this from any number of angles. It certainly was not the kind of thing that movies openly dealt with then. Fuller was always one to confront racism and injustice. The theme of people mistakenly judging others frequently comes up in his films. There was the hooker trying to start her life anew in The Naked Kiss (1964). His film White Dog (1982) which dealt with a dog that was taught to attack black people was left unreleased for many years due to a misinformed backlash from groups that judged it without even seeing it. Sam Fuller also will pick up a blow torch to make his point when a match would have gotten the job done. Sometimes he makes his points with a sledgehammer swinging it like Thor against injustice. While the spirit is admirable it sometimes mars the flow of his films and sticks out a bit too much. On the other hand that is who he is, like it or not.

For a film that seems to only have a few interiors there is a tremendous amount of detail to be seen. There is an intriguing collection of porcelain figures in the detectives’ shared apartment. Later on in the film we see dozens of these intricately made dolls encased in glass cases filling a set. We even see how they are made and the woman who specializes in wigs for them. Fuller takes us inside a few dojo to see men practicing judo and karate. There are posters in these schools and in the detectives’ apartment advertising various kendo tournaments. One of the highlights in the film is the kendo fencing match between the two detectives. It is highly ritualized match that gets out of hand when one of them begins to actually attack the other. What at first looks like a shocking clash of cultures and races between a white man and Japanese man turns out to be two very good friends getting so far beyond words that only combat can express what one of them feels. It’s a powerful scene and the one in which everything in the film comes together.

The Crimson Kimono works on a lot of levels. It begins as a Noir-ish tale of a stripper being killed on the street but it ends with another woman being killed on the same street, and by then it has become several others kinds of pictures. Too much? Probably. But amidst the immersion in the Japanese culture hidden in Little Tokyo Sam Fuller mangers to get in a story about two buddies whose friendship is tested by a kind of racism that cuts deep.

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Video – 1.85:1
Much of this black and white picture looks wonderful. The way the painting fills in during the opening credits is a delight. There are occasional bits that fall short but nothing at all that stands in the way. Fuller does some interesting compositions that will leave wanting to hit the pause button for a sustained look. As noted by Curtis Hanson in the extras he moves his camera more than you might notice at first. There is one bit where the cameraman backs into a restaurant or hotel allowing the actors to move from the street to the interior in one continuous take.

Audio – DTS-HD 1.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue sounds fine and is easy to follow.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track , Sam Fuller Storyteller, Curtis Hanson: The Culture of The Crimson Kimono ,Original trailer

The extras are ported over from the Samuel Fuller Collection DVD set. Curtis Hanson who saw Fuller regularly at one time reveals some fun interactions that show off what a great storyteller Fuller was. We get a good sense of his background, too. Both of these extras are top notch and must see.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent