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Silence (2016) Blu-Ray Review

March 25th, 2017

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Stars – Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano
Director – Martin Scorsese

Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Silence is a personal film. It gets inside you. Set in the eighteen hundreds we follow two extremely dedicated priests who journey from Portugal in search of another priest who has gone missing in Japan. The spread of the Christian faith and the benefits of trading with the Europeans has been exported in a bundle. At this point in Japan Christianity has been outlawed. Practitioners are persecuted, often killed. Those who believe must hide their faith and worship in secret. There is a fearsome man called The Inquisitor who offers pieces of silver for information on any Christians in hiding. He also tortures those he captures until they refute their beliefs. The two priests Rodriguez (Adam Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) convince the powers that be to let them undertake this mission to find their former mentor.

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There is much water imagery. In fact one of the most dominant effects on the soundtrack is that of water. Ships sail through it. We hear rain drops and storms. Men are drowned in it amidst the terrifying crashing of waves. When the two priests arrive they are quickly hidden and secreted away by a rag tag group of Christian villagers. They feel so blessed to be able to have these actual trained priests it seems they want to keep them to themselves. They are able to confess their sins and be forgiven. When they first meet these two priests they offer them food. In a very telling scene we see Rodriguez wolf down the food. But the others wait. They want a blessing. Did Rodriquez show us just then that survival was more important than faith? Is that primal need the driving force. We as an audience are asked to consider that. Much of what happens to these men is done in such a way as to invite us to reflect on it. Despite the beautiful photography Silence is very much an internal film. We are continually asked to look within and see how we would handle something and what ramifications that decision would have. There are sections in this film that feature people talking philosophy. These ideals are continually put to the test. Not a test to be graded or learned from but in life and death situations.

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There are frequent scenes where people are asked to step on a stone image of Christ or be tortured. Later when Rodriguez is captured he is questioned by the Inquisitor. Again it starts with discussions of philosophy and religion. But soon the Inquisitor puts the priest’s beliefs to the test. He is asked to recant his faith. They call it apostatizing. If he does not apostatize then people will be tortured and killed. The Inquisitor reminds him that these people are dying for your belief. This central conceit is revisited throughout the film. Is one’s faith worth the life of others? Certainly saying mere words to save a life is the right choice. They say that Christ himself would do this. And yet there are those that have given their word who now practice their faith in silence. How can one bear this silence. All these heady themes run through this film like the water we frequently see. It is a very powerful piece. The movie runs two hours and forty minutes. When you watch this film you are asked to look inward, to consider, and to weigh your thoughts. Yes there is a strong story and yes there is an ending but the journey is deeply personal if you allow it in.

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The acting is uniformly excellent. If you only know Andrew Garfield from Spiderman and The Social Network you’ll be deeply impressed. Garfield has show himself quite capable of handling difficult dramas before with films like Boy A (2007), Red Riding (2009) and Never Let Me Go (2010). Adam Driver also impresses with how deeply he appears to invest in his character. Liam Neeson who plays the lost priest worked with Scorsese before on The Gangs of New York (2002) interestingly playing a character who was nick named, Priest. Asano Tadanobu who plays a man who is tasked with interpreting the languages for Rodriguez and The Inquisitor. Scorsese mentions in the included featurette that he liked him from when he first saw him in Ichi The Killer (2001).

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Watching this film is not an easy task. Scorsese keeps him camera in check here. There are no obvious directorial flourishes. The soundtrack is concerned more with how water sounds than any pop tune that might fit in nicely. He utilizes a technique that is common to a lot of Asian. Films. He allows his actors time to work a scene. We stay still and watch. We sit and listen. We’re not outwardly told all that much. Instead we are asked to consider. If that works for you this is a very powerful experience. I saw it by myself. It feels like a solo journey. A long time ago Harvey Keitel held his hand over a flame in Mean Streets (1983). Why did he do that? Was he showing how strong he was, how determined a man he had become or was he testing his faith. Maybe he was asking something. Martin Scorsese has been asking this question for many years now and Silence just may finally be his answer.

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Video – 2.35:1
There are times when a small boat coasts through the water. Mist and fog rise up from the surface. The color looks ethereal. The coastlines cut into the water look bold and beautiful. There is detail in the clothing but the lines in people’s faces stand out much more. This is a very artfully done film. Much of it is breathtaking. But what lurks beneath all that stunning photography is much more captivating.

Audio – English DTS-HD MA 5.1, Spanish Dolby 5.1, French Dolby 5.1
with subtitles offered in English, French, Spanish and English SDH Closed-captioned
The directionality in the mix is very evident in the way that the many sounds of water are presented. We can hear the gentle drops of rain on the soft petals of broad leaves. We can feel the crushing tide blasting in to take the lives of men tied to wooden stakes stuck in the sand. There are the drops of blood slowly dripping from a tiny wound cut into men’s heads as they are tied upside down in a pit. The languages spoken all get plenty of room so we can hear the cadence and feel the meaning even before they are translated for us.

Extras – “Martin Scorsese’s Journey Into Silence” Featurette

This 25 minute piece lets us hear from most everyone connected to the film. Scorsese and writer Jay Cocks share how long it took to get this to the screen. The actors talk about the arduous experience working on the picture.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Compulsion (1959) Blu-Ray Review

March 18th, 2017

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Stars – Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, Orson Welles, Diane Varsi, E.G. Marshall
Director – Richard Fleischer

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

In 1924 two university students, Leopold and Loeb kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy. The were both from wealthy families. They did not do this for money. They were not driven by revenge or any other passion. The reason given was that they wanted to commit the perfect crime to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. This crime of the century rocked the nation. The murder was awful. The motive shocking. In 1948 Alfred Hitchcock brought the story to the screen as Rope. Ten years later Richard Fleischer made this version which is exceedingly well done and quite chilling. The two leads are fantastic. Bradford Dillman plays Artie Strauss as a coiled bundle of energy and ego. He carries himself as being the smartest guy in any room. He is always up for kicks as long as he is the center of attention. Dean Stockwell as Judd Steiner is brilliant and deeply troubled. We can feel his torment and pain from the first moment we meet him. He is obsessed with Artie and will seemingly do anything to win his approval. Artie manipulates him without mercy. The two have a very strange relationship that the film portrays in good detail. The movie starts with the two of them driving at night in a very fancy sports car.  They barely miss hitting a drunk in the deserted street. Artie taunts Judd to go back and run him over. Artie is full of bravado, confidence and liquor. Judd is scared but more frightened of disappointing his friend.

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We do not actually see the murder of the boy. We hear about it while Martin Milner (13 Ghosts) as a young reporter classmate of theirs gets the lowdown on the cause of death from the coroner. There is a sequence in the film with Judd taking Milner’s girl friend played by Diane Varsi (Wild in the Streets) out to go bird watching. Judd is a nationally recognized ornithologist. When they are alone in the woods he steals a kiss and attacks her but he can’t go through with it. Judd’s balance is very off emotionally. It’s a difficult scene to watch. Judd is ashamed for his actions. But we can’t tell if that is because it was such a terrible thing to do or because he realizes he is not attracted to the girl. There is a very uneasy feeling whenever any hint of homosexuality comes up with Judd. Clearly he is driven by an attraction to Artie but he seems so painfully uncomfortable with it. Rather than offer any explanation or understanding for this the film lets us feel the tremendous struggle that Judd experiences. He is tortured by it.

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From the moment that Orson Welles appears in the film things change. His presence dominates every scene he is in. He has such control over his performance. His presents Clarence Darrow, called Jonathan Wilk here, as immensely charming even affable. But none of that charm belies the talent churning inside his mind as he works his way into the case. It is a grand standing move when he changes his plea for the two boys to guilty with mitigating circumstance. That tactics allows him to plead the case directly to the judge. Two things are accomplished by that. First and foremost the boys have a chance at getting a lengthy sentence as opposed to being hung which the jury would very likely have selected. Secondly we get to see the great Orson Welles deliver a lengthy almost Shakespearian monologue against capital punishment. During this discourse the film takes us away from the sordid details of this murder and becomes a philosophical discussion. This is how it played out in the real life trail too. Most courtroom dramas hinge on the revelation of details or the legal talents of the attorneys as they battle the merits of the case. But here as in Inherit the Wind much larger issues are at stake. It is significant that both films are based on real events. The actual crimes begat a consideration of moral issues that loom larger than the plight of the two students or the school teacher in the Scopes Monkey Trail.

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It’s fascinating to watch Welles work. Tim Lucas in his commentary goes into some of the stories about his antics on the set. Apparently he did not want anyone to have eye contact with him while he delivered his very lengthy monologue several times for the cameras. I am continually fascinated by the way he shapes his words. He pauses in his sentences often placing a different emphasis than you’d expect. The performances of Dillman and Stockman are excellent, too. Each one is so different than the other and yet they were really the only friends they had. Diane Varsi gives a very good performance as Ruth the girl that Judd tried to force himself on. Her character testifies about him in court and seems to genuinely like him. Compulsion remains a powerful drama filled with several strong actors. The widescreen Cinemascope image as lensed by William Mellor is outstanding. It is clever the way he positions Dillman’s character almost letting him sneak into the action as his character worms his way into helping with the investigation.  He gives us a large view of the courtroom scenes so it often feels like we are in an auditorium listening to a great orator, and we are.

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Video – 2.35:1
Nice strong detail is abundant in this new release from Kino Studio Classics. Black levels are good. Everything is nice and sharp. You can really appreciate everything that is going on with the William Mellor’s Cinemascope photography.

Audio – DTS-HD mast 2.0 with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow.  Music cues support the film nicely without being over played in the mix.

Extras – Commentary with by Film Historian Tim Lucas, Trailers for Compulsion and a few related other titles.

The Tim Lucas commentary covers the background of the true case the film was based on and a good deal about the actors involved. He reads some excerpts from director Fleischer’s book that concern his experiences with the making of the film. Despite all the grandstanding that has been attributed to Welles Fleischer was able to control the shoot.  Lucas has a nice relaxed delivery. He’ll take short breaks once in awhile.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

The Invisible Ghost (1941) Blu-Ray Review

March 14th, 2017

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Stars – Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, Betty Compson, John McGuire, Clarence Muse
Director – Joseph H. Lewis

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If you have a taste for Poverty Row films this is a classic with much to recommend about it. The first major draw is Lugosi’s performance. He plays a delightful man whose wife has cheated on him and disappeared. Whether she is dead or gone we do not really know. It has broken his heart. Though she has been gone for three years he still has a fancy dinner on their anniversary. Her plate is set and he engages in imaginary conversation with the empty chair. Later on he is visited by a ghostly image of her. She puts the whammy on him. Director Lewis has a light placed underneath the frame just in front of Lugosi. As he moves closer his face gets brighter. The excessive glare accentuates his features. He extends his hand in a classic chocking posture and affects a limp as he goes after someone to do away with. He seems to settle for anyone who is available in the house. It’s a good thing his daughter and boyfriend came over because Lugosi was running out of people to kill. There is no devious plot behind the killings. We know who done it from the start. The why seems to be just bonkers if you think about it at all. Even though Lugosi is the killer we can see it is not his fault. He is so nice to the butler. At one point he reassures the new cook who is about to quit. It is a tender moment. So while Bela is still the mysterious strangler he gets to play a good guy in a rare sympathetic role.

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Early on we see that the gardener has Lugosi’s wife hidden away in a secret room down in the basement. He took her down there after a car accident. She’s not quite herself so rather than trouble anyone upstairs he figures he’ll let her regain her composure before returning her. But it’s been three years! That’s a long time to smuggle turkey legs and scraps from the dinner table downstairs to this lady. She’s got a small bed and a nightstand and that’s about it. This gardener could well be the father of the creepy kidnapping guy in The Vanishing (1988).

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With all these murders why do people keep staying in this house? While the plot and mystery are just nuts, director Joseph H. Lewis elevates this film with his considerable talents. His frequent use of interesting shadows enhanes the look of many sequences. He’ll often put something in the foreground with his actors in the middle area to give his shots an amazing amount of depth. When Lugosi sits down at his favorite chair by the fireplace he has the camera shoot from behind the flames looking up at Lugosi. It’s a great shot. He uses the gimmick of having Bela put his hands inside his coat when he strangles his victims. It eliminates fingerprints but also allows for some close ups of Bela’s eyes burning out over the collar of the coat as he holds it up. It is a bit reminiscent of Dracula peering over his cape. There are a few times when the camera trucks slowly toward an actor. It makes a strong impact as the camera doesn’t move around much in this soundstage. Any fan of horror films will appreciate the beauty shot he gives Lugosi’s wife as she peers in from the rain soaked window. When talented directors worked at this level they may have had low budgets but their innovation and creativity had full reign. There were no Darryl F. Zanucks or Harry Warners checking in on them. Lewis went on to make Gun Crazy, The Big Combo and other great films but his style is easily recognized here.

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This is an old dark house style mystery-thriller-horror picture. There is Lugosi, his daughter, the boyfriend, the cook, the gardener and the butler. We also get a visits from two detectives. It’s a small cast and one location to keep the budget down. When the boyfriend is killed his twin brother arrives. Now that’s getting two roles out of one actor Poverty Row style. It is worth noting that Clarence Muse’s butler is a very likeable character. There is none of the exaggerated frightened antics that were usually the norm for black actors then. The film runs 64 minutes which was normal for a B film like this.  Between Bela’s performance and the style of director Joseph Lewis The Invisible Ghost is one of the better Poverty Row films out there.

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Video – 1.33:1
After a bit of a rocky start with the credits the picture looks exceptional for the next twenty five minutes or so. Detail is quite strong. Black levels all behave with no noise chatter. The close ups of Lugosi reveal texture in the skin. Shadows have nice contrast. The shot of the wife through the rain soaked window is a classic horror portrait. However about a half hour in we get a shift in quality as if other elements were then used. There are scratches. Some of the lighter scenes feel a bit too bright with a few facial shots bordering on washing out. But then we’ll see strong detail in the background and people.  The enhancing benefits of the transfer seem to hold their own throughout. The varying quality has to be down to condition of the film materials that were available. What is good about this picture remains fabulous. Yes it is not consistent but more than enough of this looks great. Much is good and the rest is always entirely viewable despite the scratches and lines.

Audio – Mono track with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The music has plenty of recognizable cues that fans may have heard in many films before.

Extras – Commentary with Tom Weaver, Gary Rhodes, and Dr. Robert Kiss, Trailers
The inside cover sports a very nice two sided spread of promotional art from the film.

Tom Weaver and his pals bring a Steamer trunk full of information to this fun commentary track. Gary Rhodes gives a nice infatuated tribute to the old Dark House sub genre. Weaver doles out plenty of background on the film and the stars. We learn that Polly Ann Young is Loretta Young’s older sister. Despite admitting that the film’s plotline is Looney Tunes all three bring a real appreciation of the film to the table.

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

Kiss Of Death (1947) Blu-Ray Review

March 11th, 2017

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Stars – Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Karl Malden, Richard Widmark, Coleen Gray
Director – Henry Hathaway

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Kiss of Death is a good Film Noir that gets catapulted into greatness by way of Richard Widmark’s stand out performance as sadistic hit man Tommy Udo. The nature of the lead character played by Victor Mature also represents a departure for the kind of heroes that would be acceptable. The film starts off with the robbery of a jewelry store. Mature is one of the guys knocking the place over. One of the robbers kills someone. So he is a crook, right? No doubt about it. Now he did not kill the guy but he was part of the crew that did. Later on when he is forced to choose between being sent off on a lengthy prison term or become a snitch and rat out his friends he sings like a canary. There are extenuating circumstances. His wife became involved in a tawdry affair while he was away. Things got so tough for her that she stuck her head in an over and committed suicide. Mature’s little boy is left all alone. However the kid’s old babysitter has eyes for his dad. Forget that he is too old for her, and that he is in jail. So this is the hero of the picture. This is the guy we are rooting for. When he has to testify in court against one of his old crew word gets around and Tommy Udo is called in to take care of him. Now Mature is still definitely a bad guy but when you compare him to Udo, maybe he’s not so bad.

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That kind of character is one of the things that is so compelling about a good Noir. People can have shades to them. The gray scale of human morality gets as much attention as the fascinating photography by Nobert Brodine. Brodine shot over 100 films starting in the silent era. In this one we frequently see a reflection of Mature in a nearby window or on a highly polished piece of furniture or door. That gleam in the reflections is so strong that you suspect they had a guy in the crew whose sole job was to take a shammy cloth to any shiny surface the camera pointed at. But it works. There are two sides to this guy and maybe he’s leaning more toward the good side of life now. Meanwhile Richard Widmark makes a film debut that just rocks the house. He has a maniacal high pitched laugh. You can trace that laugh from the Batman comics by way of Widmark being a fan to Frank Gorshin’s laugh as The Riddler in the Batman TV show. Widmark also sports a world class smirk throughout most of the picture. His dialogue is full of these hipster put downs. He calls squealers and people not up to his liking, squirts. He says it like squints at times, too. He oozes evil and looks ready to pop at any moment. The costumer did a great job with his look. He dresses like a stylish gangster with just a touch of a comic book villain.

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The intense scene that starts with Udo asking an old lady in a wheelchair where her son is has become legendary. Everything about it just builds beautifully. The old lady lies about her son not being there. Udo sees an open window that the squirt had make his escape through. Who would tie an elderly mother into her wheelchair with an electric cord he just rips off of a lamp. Udo takes her out on the landing and heaves her down the stairway. His laughter over the scene seals the deal. You could line up the people offended by that scene several times around the city of Philadelphia. After seeing this guy at work rooting for Mature’s bad guy who now may be more of a good guy just got a whole lot easier.

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Coleen Gray, the baby sitter who marries Victor Mature has a voice over that opens and closes the picture. With so many hardnosed guys doing voice overs in Noirs this has a very different and gentle quality to it. Much of the film was shot on the streets of the city which lends it an air of toughness . There is a bordello hidden in a town house in a nice neighborhood that Udo takes Mature to. The incongruity of the house of ill repute carrying on in such a nice part of town fits with Mature’s duality nicely. Kiss of Death has some melodrama to it that gets balanced well with the brutality of Widmark‘s role of Tommy Udo. The darkness of the location shoot also levels the scales. The shots inside the Chrysler building are terrific. Kiss Of Death is a stand out Film Noir that gets a great looking treatment here.

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Video – 1.33:1
This is a very satisfying presentation. Black levels are strong. There is no distortion at all. There is plenty of detail to be found in clothing, faces and backgrounds. The gleam in the frequent reflections is easily seen.

Audio – DTS HD MA 2.0 and 1.0 in English with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is easily understandable. Music and effects fit well in the track.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, Commentary by film historians  Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Commentary with film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, Original theatrical trailer, Essay by Julie Kirgo

Ursini and Silver are well know for their books on Film Noir. They bring in a great deal of information in their commentary. The other new commentary is more fun and gives another take on the film.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent