Archive for July, 2010

Weekend Flashback: Summer’s Here And The Time Is Right

Posted in Grateful Dead, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2010 by halmasonberg

Summer has finally made its way to So Cal and, in honor of its somewhat late arrival, I thought we’d span a ten year period of the Grateful Dead performing DANCING IN THE STREETS. Ahhh, what a difference a decade makes!

Our first offering is from a concert the Dead gave in 1967 in Golden Gate Park, San Fran. It is blistered by Harry Reasoner’s paranoid and somewhat misguided interpretation of the events surrounding the scene.

The second (and third) offerings are from 1977 at the Capital Theater in Passaic N.J. ten years later and 3,000 miles away. The song is broken up into 2 video segments. This newer rendition features the Grateful Dead’s alternative arrangement to the song. One that I personally loved and wish they’d continued playing into the 80′s. But alas, this version died out with the 70′s.

But today, summer’s here and the time is right. Again… Enjoy!

Weekend Flashback: Grateful Dead, Germany, 1981

Posted in Grateful Dead, Music with tags , , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by halmasonberg

1981 was never my favorite year for the Dead, but this ALTHEA from Rockpalast in Essen, Germany is quite refreshing and feels appropriate to the sweltering heat we’ve been having out here in So Cal. It’s just the right rhythm to match these lazy days and nights. Grab a cool drink and enjoy.

INCEPTION: An Action Film That Invites You To Use Your Brain. A Bit.

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by halmasonberg

I have no idea what the public reaction to INCEPTION will be (we’ll find out in the next couple of days), but I’m happy to report that, while not a masterpiece of cinema or a great science fiction film, it is nonetheless a smart action adventure that will easily stand above most anything else you’re likely to see coming out of a Hollywood studio this summer.

Let’s be clear here. This is an action film first and foremost. Its concept, though thankfully thought-provoking, takes a back seat to the action sequences. But, unlike most films these days, this is an example of a healthy blending of the two. Director Christopher Nolan, after the smashing success of THE DARK KNIGHT, has clearly cashed in his creative studio token to bring us INCEPTION. While not a gritty indie film done on a studio budget, it is still smarter and more complex than anything one can imagine the Hollywood machine, in its current incarnation, allowing to get made unless huge favors were owed. The film doesn’t dumb itself down for the audience, nor does it pretend to be anything more than a smart summer film.

I’m one of the few people that wasn’t crazy about THE MATRIX. In fact, I would go so far as to say INCEPTION feels a bit like a “smart” MATRIX. That will confuse many as most folks found THE MATRIX to be smarter than your average action fare. And it was. But I still felt like it spent a lot of time over-explaining itself so that no one was left out or had to work very hard to keep up. And its concept felt a bit familiar to me from the sci-fi books of my childhood. INCEPTION also has a level of familiarity in that it’s not a completely unique notion, and its classic heist story-line is almost by the numbers, yet it maintains just enough intelligence to stand above the fray and it doesn’t seem to be afraid to let the audience do some mental lifting. Again, this isn’t 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (or even Soderbergh’s), but it is a fun film with a somewhat challenging premise. And the cast works incredibly well together in pulling off the physical roller-coaster ride created for this film’s malleable world. Even when the dialogue dips into the somewhat informational.

What they don’t fully pull off is the emotional journey, but that is because INCEPTION is more a puzzle than a character study, even though it deals largely with the subconscious. But that subconscious is a tool, another piece in the puzzle, a ticking clock, if you will. But it is never directly connected to the hearts and souls of the audience. There are no personal revelations or insights for us. That said, who knows what was cut out to accommodate an already-long running-time?

Either way, the end result was two-fold for me. I found the film didn’t stick with me for very long after I’d left the theater, but what I did retain was how much fun I had while watching it and how appreciative I was that the movie didn’t seem to be talking down to me. For a summer blockbuster, that is a rare thing, indeed. Hell, for a film coming from a studio, that’s a rare thing, period!

JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS On Blu-ray. Simply Stunning.

Posted in Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater, My Examiner articles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2010 by halmasonberg

Sony Pictures’ new Blu-ray release of the Ray Harryhausen spectacular JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is a joy to behold. The film has never come close to looking this good in any previous home release. Colors are vibrant yet never pushed and flesh tones appear natural. From first frame to last, JASON wows with its imagery and the clarity of this Blu-ray release will surprise and delight those who have only seen it in old TV prints or sub-par video releases. It is, truly, a different movie on Blu-ray.

An influential film for many filmmakers including Peter Jackson who adds his voice to one of the Blu-ray’s two commentary tracks, JASON is widely considered by many to be Harryhausen’s masterwork. Directed by Don Chaffey (who went on to direct ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. as well as a host of Disney films and more TV series episodes than you can shake a stick at) JASON was also produced by long-time Harryhausen partner Charles H. Schneer.

Coming just three films after the other popular Harryhausen favorite, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (see my review HERE), JASON shows not only an improved sense of storytelling all around, but the effects have made a giant leap forward showcasing Harryhausen’s ever-increasing inventiveness and imagination. Todd Armstrong as Jason is wonderful, strong and vulnerable all at the same time, and Nancy Kovack as Medea is sumptuous and otherworldly. And the moment when Talos turns his head is still one of the greatest moments in cinema history, and the army of fighting skeletons sprouting from the earth will send chills of delight up your spine!

JASON is presented on Blu-ray in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This is a compromise between the 1.85:1 theatrical release ratio and Harryhausen’s desire to NOT make films in any of the widescreen formats. The film fits comfortably in this framing and never looks as if it were meant for any other. Sony has transferred JASON using the MPEG-4 AVC Video codec at a bitrate of 27.92 mbps.

The audio is also superior to any previous release and is, surprisingly for the age of the film, quite aggressive. Bernard Hermann’s score envelopes in its lossless DTS-HD Master Audio presentation and ambient surrounds, such as the creaking of the Argo and the surrounding sea, are vivid and breathtaking.

Extras include:

• Commentary with Ray Harryhausen and film historian Tim Dalton

• Commentary with Peter Jackson and visuals effects artists William Randall Cook

• Original Skeleton Fight Storyboards

• The Harryhausen Legacy (25:32)

• The Harryhausen Chronicles narrated by Leonard Nimoy (57:58)

• Landis interviews Harryhausen (11:53)

And for those L.A.-based readers, don’t miss the Ray Harryhausen exhibit over at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences running now through August 22nd. Many of the original creature models from JASON can be seen on display there.

DNR Madness. Fox’s New PREDATOR Blu-ray Offends

Posted in Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater, My Examiner articles with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2010 by halmasonberg

Fox’s new Blu-ray release, PREDATOR: ULTIMATE HUNTER EDITION, sadly tries to correct complaints that the previous Blu-ray release was a bit too grainy by overcompensating and making this 1987 film look like it was shot on modern HD video. For those interested in their films actually looking like film, this is not good news. DNR, when over applied, ends up removing not only a film’s natural grain, but important details as well (for more on this, check out my article over at Examiner.com BLU-RAY KVETCH SESSION).

Below are two identical shots from PREDATOR. The top one is from the original Blu-ray release, the bottom from the new “fixed” version.

Notice how in the bottom image, Arnold’s face looks waxy, fake. Even his stubble has lost its texture. Yes, it’s sharper, but it no longer looks like film.Now this is clearly apparent on a small image. Imagine what it might look like on your large TV or front projector. It would be nice if the studios that are still over-applying DNR would listen to the folks that buy their products and stop making film look like video. One need only visit any web site devoted to DVD and Blu-ray to find such complaints.

Thanks to The Digital Bits for pointing this out.

Weekend Flashback: Grateful Dead @ Monterey Pop 1967

Posted in Grateful Dead, Music, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2010 by halmasonberg

Per usual, the Grateful Dead were never happy with their performances at the”big” festivals so they asked not to be included in D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop film. But here they are anyway, more than 43 years later, performing a scorching Viola Lee Blues!

1776: RESTORED DIRECTOR’S CUT

Posted in Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater, My Examiner articles, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2010 by halmasonberg


1776: The Restored Director’s Cut, while not yet available on Blu-ray, is thankfully available on Standard DVD. Though based on the popular Broadway show with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone (who also wrote the screenplay here), the film was not well received at the time of its release. This type of Hollywood musical was in its death throes by the early 70’s to make room for more “realistic” musical fare like CABARET (which beat out 1776 at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture and Best Cinematography).

But now, lo these many years later, 1776 has found its fans and is slowly being recognized for the extraordinary film/musical that it is. Cut down substantially in its initial release by producer Jack Warner, the film was extended on its original laserdisc release using found footage of varying quality. However, that release was not considered the desired cut by director Peter Hunt who, after finding better quality materials on the missing footage, restored the film to its current Director’s Cut for DVD. And what a cut it is!

Back is the powerful and frightening number “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” (see below) which was originally cut from the film at the behest of then-president Richard Nixon because he felt the number was an insult to conservatives. Oddly enough, the greed and self-serving nature of the characters in this number rings quite true, perhaps today more than ever.

This is not a musical for those who hope to leave the experience tapping their toes and humming a memorable tune. This is not CATS. Though many of the songs are incredibly fun and filled with terrific episodes of humor, there are also some very dark and disturbing numbers. This is a musical that does not talk down to its audience. The libretto and musical numbers use portions of dialogue and text from actual letters and memoirs of many of the story’s real-life participants. This is also the only musical to sport a more than 30 minute sequence without a single musical number. And it is downright riveting.

William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson were all members of the original Broadway cast and are simply mesmerizing. They are the centerpiece of the film along with John Cullum as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina and Donald Madden as John Dickenson of Pennsylvania. The film also treats us to a young and quite dashing Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson.

While this standard definition transfer of the film is a far cry from a true film restoration or offering the kind of clarity and depth of picture and sound that Blu-ray would allow (the print is marred by occasional speckles and scratches and the soundtrack is a bit muffled at times), 1776 is still one of the smartest and most engaging musicals ever made and this Sony Pictures release is, for the moment, the most definitive version currently available. It is presented here in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer.

1776: The Director’s Cut gives us a deep sense of the efforts and struggles, both personal and political, that took place to finally turn this once British colony into the United States of America through the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence.  It is a must-see.

Happy 4th everyone.

CONTACT On Blu. Worthy Despite A Few Stumbles.

Posted in Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater, My Examiner articles with tags , , , , , , on July 2, 2010 by halmasonberg

Warner’s 1080p VC-1 Blu-ray release of Robert Zemeckis’ CONTACT is a healthy improvement over its earlier DVD counterpart. That said, there is still a somewhat noticeable amount of DNR applied, though not as distracting as some other recent titles (e.g. Universal’s SPARTACUS). Film grain is still present, but one gets the feeling there should be more. Backgrounds are a little soft now and then, but faces never look waxy. So while a less-manipulated transfer would be nice, this one still looks good enough not to distract from the film’s enjoyment. Warner’s presents it here in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

Audio is also improved over the DVD release with a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. While not as dynamic as one might expect, the sound does kick in strong in some of the more crucial effects-driven sequences. However, basic ambience during the quieter scenes is somewhat lacking. Again, nothing that will distract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.

CONTACT was originally scripted by scientist Carl Sagan, who also authored the novel. It took nearly 15 years for the script to find its way to the big screen and, sadly, Sagan died six months before the film’s release. But many of Sagan’s messages and questions remain intact despite some studio tampering that knocks the intelligence of the film down a few notches. And it’s a shame because truly smart and provocative science fiction films are rare these days. And while CONTACT is still among the better of the last 20 years, there are a few unfortunate decisions that were made during the film’s creation that result in the story being somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading now as there are spoilers afoot!

The first and least offensive unfortunate moment comes later in the film when Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss visits Jody Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway to confess that the reason he did not vote for her to go on the mission was because he couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. This is a man who puts truth before all else. The idea that he would make any selfish decisions based on his feelings for a woman he slept with once and conversed with half a dozen times is insincere and unmotivated. It completely betrays the integrity of Joss and reads as nothing more than a manufactured Hollywood moment. It also highlights a lack of faith in the film’s ability to convey the intricacies of a romance that was, up until this moment, both believable and layered.

Then there’s the climax of the film, which would have been challenging enough for any director to successfully pull off, but Zemeckis’ choice to play it out on an effects-heavy landscape almost completely squeezes the life out of the film. What should have by all rights been a simple beach setting becomes a weak effects extravaganza that not only takes away from the intimacy of the moment, but looks downright awful. Not even Foster’s staggeringly emotional performance, so raw and honest throughout the film, can save this scene. The characters simply take a back seat to all the toys at play.

And finally, the most damaging of all script decisions is the one in which the filmmakers let you know, unequivocally, that what Ellie believes happened to her actually did. When it is revealed that her camera filmed 18 hours of static, the possibility for the audience to walk out with questions and opinions was instantly taken away. Even Foster’s performance, which was so clearly in the service of setting up these ambiguities, is undone by this simple revelation. One can hear the studio execs complaining that audiences “need to know whether or not it was real!” God forbid we should think for ourselves.

So while CONTACT still remains one of the more engaging, thoughtful and entertaining science fiction films of the past 20 years, it still suffers from some unfortunate decisions in the film’s final third that take a small but painful bite out of the movie’s intelligence and reason. Luckily, there’s enough of Sagan’s thoughfulness and imagination left, in addition to Foster’s honest and heartfelt performance, to make it well worth seeing.

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