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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Stuhlbarg’

Arrival (2016) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, February 5th, 2017


Stars – Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director – Denis Villeneuve

Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Both this one and La La Land have been getting a lot of nominations and praise. In each case the accolades are well deserved. The hype which is the normal way the publicity machine rolls from major studios may turn some off. This is not the most amazing science fiction film made in years. Whether it qualifies as the best picture you will see this year may get in the way with what it has to genuinely offer. Put all of that aside and enjoy it for what it is. Arrival is solid film delivered in a very slick way. Everything we see and hear is controlled and tweaked with clear intentions. Arrival fits nicely next to vintage science fiction films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. It is a first cousin to more modern ones like Contact and Interstellar. This is thinking man’s science fiction. It’s classy and centers more on character than spectacle. Even if the film concentrates on the multiple alien space ships that have landed around the world, it is clearly just as dedicated to the journey within one person’s soul.

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Several huge monolithic space craft suddenly appear and hover above the ground or oceans throughout the globe. In fairly short order the military and government are focused on finding out what their intentions are. Is this peaceful or is an attack imminent. Since the aliens do not appear to communicate in any earthly ways a linguist and mathematician are recruited to establish contact with them. How they do this takes up the bulk of the film and it frankly fascinating in all its detail. There is a neat transition in the film that asks you to kind of think sideways along with the two experts who are trying to establish communication with the aliens. It’s a clever construction as the plotline of the film will wobble wobble nicely towards its satisfying conclusion. The small crew has to get inside bulky space suits. They ride way up to a small opening in the ship that is presented at the same time each day. Once inside gravity goes out the window. It is a strange journey to a very large unidentified dark space that faces a humongous window like force field. The aliens are huge. Most of their bodies disappear into a heavy fog that enshrouds everything there. They have long octopus like tendrils that reach out.

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That fact that the communication happens in the written or drawn word is a fabulous and lovely visual conceit. We as an audience get to watch rather then listen to them try to establish contact. Amy Adams draws on a board and presents it to the creatures. The octopus like arms spray out an ink. They use this to then write in the foggy air. Real octopuses can emit an inky spray too. That makes a nice and gentle connection with real world science. As we watch them trade images back and forth this encourages us to shift our way of understanding the film as it unfolds. This is not an earth shattering gimmick but an intelligent way to invite us to appreciate the movie on another level. That level is not necessarily smarter but it makes for a few nice moments of realization as things unfold in the last portion of the narrative. The fact that film stands apart from the onslaught of action special effects oriented films in this genre is refreshing. That doesn’t mean it is better just that it quenches your thirst from something more cerebral.

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Amy Adams delivers an excellent performance. Like many great science fiction tales the main character looks to the stars to find something within themselves. It is a warm feeling that she courts wonderfully throughout the whole film. She also embraces a melancholy sadness that permeates her character. Adams is able to share with us the way that changes and morphs into a different kind of understanding and appreciation. Jeremy Renner has a more grounded presence. Both of his feet are firmly planted on the ground while his partner’s tend to lift a bit. The writing in the script makes them an interesting and surprisingly balanced pair. Forest Whitaker gives a low key and a more intelligent portrayal of the military commander that is usual. So many films in this genre pivot on the rivalry between the military and the scientists. Here the military willingly steps aside when called for.

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Arrival is a well done film that gives us a more cerebral science fiction tale. If you have read or seen a lot in this field some of the revelations may not be as original to you. The real strength in the story is its humanity or soul. Put all the hype aside and let yourself be taken on a nice ride. Arrival works well.

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Video – 2.39:1
The picture looks sleek. At all times what we see is carefully controlled and presented with perfect clarity and good colors. The fog and haze that define the spaceship environment looks so real you could touch it. There is a depth to the billows of that fog, too. Flesh tones look nice.

Audio – DTS Master 7.1 in English, Dolby Digital5.1 in French and Spanish. Subtitles are offered English, English SDH, French, and Spanish
Dialogue is always clear and easy to follow. The music and effects are mixed to create an unusual environment. The soundscape that is created for the interactions with the aliens is quite remarkable. It would be chilling if you weren’t so tied to the possibility of meaningful contact. While there is good surround the sub woofer does not rock here. Effects are more subtle that you may be expecting.

Extras – Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design , Eternal Recurrence: The Score , Nonlinear Thinking: The Editorial Process, Principles of Time, Memory & Language.
All of theses are presented in HD. The first one runs a half hour while the others are in the 15 minute range. They offer up a nice examination of how the film came together. There is a good emphasis on the creation of the soundscape for the film. A Digital HD copy is included.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Boardwalk Empire The Complete Fourth Season Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

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Stars – Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Jack Huston, Paul Sparks, Stephen Graham, Gretchen Mol, Jeffrey Wright, Michael K. Williams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Anthony Laciura, Brian Geraghty, and Patricia Arquette

Released by HBO

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Just based on the viewing habits of my circle of friends the long form narrative series has become the most popular art form of late. The drive of these series is usually a story that just keeps roaring along demanding that you tune in every week to see what happens. However in this age of Blu-Ray, DVD, On Demand and streaming fans are no longer held captive to the calendar like movie go-ers were in the 1930s with the chapter serials. The new thing is binge-watching. It is now commonplace to devour entire seasons on box sets over a week or weekend. One can open the steaming valve and put your head under the faucet and drink in all those episodes until you choke. And what’s wrong with that? Not a thing.

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Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City New Jersey during the roaring twenties. The production design is richly detailed and exquisite to behold. The look of the buildings, the costumes, the boardwalk, the bootlegging operations and this season’s flagship set piece The Onyx Club is enthralling. This is the fourth season with Nucky Thompson and his crooked cronies. He’s got two strong characters after him and a possible new opportunity and life in Florida. Brian Geraghty plays Federal Agent Knox. Knox is so driven to prove that crime is organized that even J. Edgar Hoover thinks he is too obsessed. He’s got an inner zeal and devotion that makes him unhinged . He’s like Elliot Ness on steroids. His other nemesis this season is the erudite and highly polished Valentin Narcisse. He speaks eloquently with an educated vocabulary and the quietly lilting tones of his Jamaican accent. He comes from Harlem. He runs these altruistic clubs for the advancement of black men whom he calls Libyans. He brings the incredible chanteuse Daughter Maitland to Chalky’s new Club The Onyx. And he sells heroin. You’ll see through his charm in and hate him in five minutes flat.

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Then there is Florida and a new crooked real estate operation that needs a cash infusion to grow. Nucky makes several trips there. Patricia Arquette is a great casting choice as Sally. We first see her behind the bar and later learn she knows the ropes. She supervises men loading bottles of rum onto trucks and takes no crap from anyone. On hot nights she sleeps out on the porch, with a shot gun cradled between her breasts. She is one tough broad. The attraction between her and Nucky is played very off beat. She could be his partner down there. He could fall for her. The first time before they make love she slugs him in the face first. It’s got that Hemmingway-esque thing going on and it plays very nicely.

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Much of this season is about coupling. Various men and women pair off. We watch Jack Huston’s deadly disfigured veteran try to put down roots and settle down. Gretchen Moll’s Gillian Darmody goes through a tremendous transformation and risks everything for love. Chalky falls hard for the new singer in his club. Margot Bingham has a gorgeous voice. She has the Cotton Club style moves down, but most of all she conveys an air of tragedy about her all the time. We know she is no good for him. There are recognizable themes and character developments that run through this show. Whether they remind you of old Noir films, gangster stories or doomed figures from history the familiar ring fits well. One of the pleasures of this series is seeing real life characters woven into the stories. Just like E.L. Doctorow did so successfully with this Ragtime book, Boardwalk Empire uses these historical figures to add much more than texture to the season. They become an integral part of the show.

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Stephen Graham’s take on Al Capone is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show. He’s got that super outgoing manic style down pat. He is so likeable. Graham is always throwing his arms around people and flashing that huge winning smile of his. The fact that he can go from telling a joke to smashing somebody’s head in without missing a beat makes his character so dangerously attractive. During this season he spends a lot of time with Van Alden. Michael Shannon’s overall weirdness as the man has been toned down some since last season. It’s interesting that Boardwalk Empire’s focus has been able to travel easily from New Jersey to New York and Florida. There is quite a bit of good drama and action in Chicago this season. It feels a bit like a separate tale though. The Windy City does not meet with the Garden State, at least not yet.

Harrow asks Nucky where to find Jimmy body

There is a montage toward the end that recalls to me an old Ambrose Bierce story,  An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It was adapted into a French film short that was shown as part of the original Twilight Zone TV series in the sixties. It makes for a very compelling sequence that is quiet affecting. During another episode we see the coldly calculating gangster Arnold Rothstein loose at a game of cards. This expert with odds and logistics is also taken for a ride in the stock market. The ways that the various vulnerabilities of the strong and powerful characters are shown is a real tribute to the writing in Boardwalk Empire.

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Big kudos to HBO and the producers for building a show like this around someone who is most known for being a quirky character actor. Steve Buscemi has turned in great performance after great performance for many long years. It’s rare that he has been so center stage. He does a terrific job here bringing lots of angles out in Nucky’s personality. We have gotten to know this character so well and yet every so often he’ll play something a bit differently as if we can see Nucky weighing if he should change. He does several of those in this season that are very well done bits of acting within his larger portrayal of Nucky Thompson. It also can’t be stated enough how effective the set design and look of the show is. The Onyx Club echoes the high class grandeur of the real Cotton Club. There is a backdrop behind the stage where the band plays that is a beautiful sepia toned tapestry of musical instruments. That set became as much a part of the show as the Boardwalk was when the series premiered. The band, the dancers, the choreography, the songs all figure into a delicious bootlegged brew.

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Video – 1.78:1 All of these episodes look stunning -from the ocean washing up on Nucky’s two toned leather shoes in the credits and all the way through. We can see lots of detail in the costuming and set design. There is a scene in one of the last episodes with Nucky and his brother Eli sharing a big family dinner together. The way that sequence goes from looking at them all seated at a long table inside to scurrying around on the nighttime sand outside in front of the ocean is beautifully done. It suit’s the changing emotional climate of the scene but also shows us what it’s like to come outside by the ocean at night. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. We get that in the look of the scene. Things move very quickly and effectively but there are many times where you’ll catch a beauty shot. The landscapes and vistas at night often reveal a nicely composed and well lit scene.

Audio – DTS HD 5.1 in original English, also in French and Spanish. Subtitles offered in English SDH, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish. The music and effects all sound wonderfully immersive in this mix. The vast majority of the dialogue all sound fine and is clear. However there are times when it is difficult to follow some of the lines delivered by Michael Williams as Chalky. He uses a very low and clipped voice that works wonderfully for the character but when he gets too soft and almost mumbles we loose him. At times like that the plethora of subtitles come in handy. While we are on languages if you let the last episode play out past the credits the copyright warnings gone on in seemingly hundreds of different languages. They just keep coming, going through Sanskrit, Latin, and hieroglyphics

Extras – Boardwalk Chronicle, Scouting the Boardwalk, PaleyFest: Made in NY Boardwalk Empire Panel The Onyx Club: A Step Back In Time, Becoming Harrow, New Characters – meet the new faces of season four, Season 3: Revisited and six commentaries with the cast and crew. The one of the Onyx Club is a real treat and not to be missed..

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Boardwalk Empire The Complete Third Season Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Gretchen Mol, Bobby Cannavale, Shea Whigham, Charlie Cox, Stephen Graham, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Kenneth, and Jack Huston
Directors: Timothy Van Patten, Allen Coulter, Alik Sakharov, and others
Released by HBO

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The third season in this exceptional series is very strong, but does take almost half way in to fully hit its stride. There is nothing wrong with that. While the interviews in the extras tout each episode as a film unto itself, this is long form story telling. It is nice to allow some things to cook and simmer. Not all the pots get the same level of boil though. There are many characters arcs to follow. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson remains the focal point and those that tie in to his narrative work wonderfully. However there are a few whose weave into that thread has worn out.

The season starts with a New Year’s Eve bash at Nucky’s mansion. His friends are living high on the hog. The opulence of the women’s dresses is in full view. At the end of the evening, in keeping with their kitschy Egyptian theme servants haul in a huge treasure chest from some pyramid that is filled with all manner of shiny baubles and jewelry for the guests to dig into as party favors. It’s a great image for the series as they all jockey for position to get as much as they can. This is after all a story about people who take what they want and the consequences for that behavior. The part of that initial episode that really stands out is the entertainment that Nucky has lined up. Eddie Cantor himself will do a number for the occasion. He’s got this flapper girl with him who needs to have a quick belt of something before she performs with him. This showgirl can dance. She can sing. And more than anything else she lights up the whole evening. Meg Steedle who plays Billie Kent is a tremendous addition to the cast. Billie is always upbeat and looking for a good time. She is cute, charming and sassy. She has all the qualities to become the “It Girl” in the burgeoning film industry of the early twenties.

Boardwalk Empire established more than an accurate physical setting for the show. The sets are stunning. The period detail is on the money. However just like E. L. Doctorow did with his novel, Ragtime this show is populated by actual historic figures. It’s more than an embellishment as many of them figure strongly in the story. In most cases we are seeing these legends before they became them. Al Capone, Charlie (not yet called Lucky) Luciano, Joe Masseria, Meyer Lansky, and Arnold Rothstein are all central characters here and played wonderfully, too. Stephen Graham as Capone in particular has that big broad personality down pat. We see how easily he can explode into a vicious outburst. Thanks to the writers though we also see how comforting he can be to his young son. That we get to experience that tender side of him is typical of the character depth in this series.

There are two storylines that concern Nucky’s business. He has to use his political connections to circumvent an investigation that will indict him. That plays to Nucky’s strengths as a strategic planner. Buscemi is fascinating to watch as he dances and plots his way around the various powerful types that would just as soon squash him. The other task calls on the resources of the new Nucky. The delivery route from Atlantic City has been hijacked by the easily offended gangster Gyp Rosetti. The trucks have got to go through Tabor Heights. Gyp settles in town with his men. He buys off the cops even lighting one on fire who displeases him. Bobby Cannavale plays this man as a ticking time bomb. The slightest thing sets him off and he is a very violent sick man. By way of private moments we get to watch how he commands the women he beds to tie his belt around his neck and choke him. These scenes of erotic asphyxiation, reminiscent of actor David Carradine’s death cast a very frightening light on this threat. Gyp is a perverted and dangerous man. At the end of Season two Jimmy said just before Nucky shot him that, “You can’t be half a gangster” In season three Nucky Thompson becomes a killer, not at all averse to pulling the trigger as often as it needs to be done.

While all this is going on Margaret, Nucky’s wife runs down to the beach to watch Amelia Earhart’s plane fly overhead on her way to setting a record. We watch her grow from the unsteady immigrant to an emancipated woman who speaks her mind. Kelly McDonald is a wonderful actress however it does feel at times that her character has to carry the women’s suffragette movement and Margaret Sanger’s birth control crusade on her shoulders while still trying to fit into a storyline that leaves her out in the cold. Her flirtations with Mr.Sleater (Charlie Cox) have a charm to them but feel unnecessary. Just to add another burden, her son is a pyromaniac. Meanwhile Michael Shannon’s character Van Alden has gone right off the deep end. He turned from the righteous revenue agent in the first season to a pathetic depressed man at the end of season two. Now we see this repressed fundamentalist reduced to selling clothing irons door to door. The sales crew picks on him. He is just so tightly wound that you know he is going to explode. He is so tangentially tied to the plot now that he is like a strange and bizarre kite flying in the wind. Shannon is a terrific actor, always fun to watch but his character is so far off the deep end now as to be in Taxi Driver territory.

Steve Buscemi shines in the series. He has always been a splendid actor. It is so gratifying to see him with show like this to star in. His character is clearly a bad guy. He lies, cheats and steals. He is even a killer now. Yet when he gets his heart broken twice in the season you can’t help but feel for him. One time is a shocker that comes out of the blue. It will rock you. The other you can see coming. The poor guy extends himself. He tires so hard to do the right thing. At an Easter party he is funny and charming, playing with the kids and just exuding charisma. We see Margaret looking at him. You’re not quite sure of his motivations but he just can’t get it to work. Toward the end of the season, in one of the last episodes is a scene with Nucky and Eli working on an old car together with the hood up. They curse and needle each other. Eli (Shea Whigham) remembers that Nucky sold him this junky car in the first place. They trade barbs about the old days as kids and it feels like this is the first time in the entire series that you realize they are brothers. It’s a very compact and telling scene. Buscemi gets to show off some real chops in episode nine, but no spoilers here.

There are several writers and directors on hand. It’s a tribute to all of them that the show holds together as well as it does. There is a cohesiveness that joins every episode to the larger whole. Still lots of little touches and stylistic flourishes abound. When big boss Joe Masseria comes into Luciano’s office to admonish him and keep him in line the last thing he does before he leaves is to pull out his watch and look at it. He notes the time, reaches out and corrects the time on Lucianos’s desk clock. He tells him, “Now you know what time it is.” It’s a great gangster threat worthy of a Warner Brothers film from the thirties. The screen test for Billie Kent has so much accurate detail right down to the director’s distrust of actors from the stage. Nucky even say she looks like the White Rock Girl. It’s Fay Wray (King Kong) whose image graced the actual soda bottles. We even get to see what all those bottles floating in to shore in the opening credits are all about. Boardwalk Empire continues to be a first class series and comes highly recommended.

Video – 1.78:1
The show looks great. It is evident that great care has been taken to give every episode that “look”. There is some quality shooting on display here. Every once in a while there’s a shot that feels like an homage or a reference to another film. They are pretty subtle and draw mostly from classics, however there is one bit that gives us the overhead tracking shot looking down on the carnage left over from a gunfight that does recall a certain director’s film about a cabbie.

Audio – DTS 5.1 in English, Spanish and French with subtitles offered in
English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
All dialogue is always clear and distinct. There are some accents that may be difficult for some ears in which case there is a cornucopia of subtitles. The music choices are nicely done throughout the series. Certainly the end titles stand out but there is great stuff to be heard from the live bands in the show to the various sound cues that support the scenes.

Extras –
American Empire, Boardwalk Chronicle, Newsreels, Distilling Season Two, New Characters, Commentary with cast and crew members. The two that stood out were the Director’s Chair with Timothy Van Patten and Allen Coulter and Scorsese on Season Three which while interesting felt to short. Executive producer Scorsese is a marvelous commentor on the show and we don’t get near enough of him here.

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

Movie – Excellent

Blu-Ray – Excellent