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Red Dawn Collector’s Edition ( 1984) Blu-Ray Review

February 25th, 2017

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Stars – Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Ben Johnson , Harry Dean Stanton , C. Thomas Howell , Ron O’Neal , Powers Boothe
Director – John Milius

Released by Shout Select

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Director John Milius plays almost directly to the mindset of an adolescent boy growing up in the 1950s or 1960s. He does so in remarkably dark detail. The threat of the big bomb dropping or an invasion by the Russians was very real then. By the time he got the chance to put this up on the screen in the mid 1980s some of those in the theaters would recognize this boyhood fantasy of survival amidst an attack. Scenarios such as rounding up rifles, ammo, knives, bows and arrows and other equipment from a local sporting goods store or camping supply house and heading out into the hills or up to the safety of a rooftop in a more urban environment had to have occurred to them as young boys when they played war. Back in the day kids armed with all the latest toy replicas made by Marx or Hasbro would run through the streets. TV commercials showed juvenile commandos scaling up dusty hills yelling their cries of victory as they shot off the latest cool Tommy gun. At those same theaters there had to have been kids completely unfamiliar with those childhood daydreams who must have been knocked for a loop by the opening sequence.

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The film begins in a bucolic setting in Colorado. The kids at Calumet High school are in class. Windows look out on a stunning mountain landscape. Without making any sound at all parachutes begin to descend. There are quite a few of them and the men underneath the billowy plumes are dressed in uniforms. They carry machine guns. The sound suddenly ratchets up as the teacher opens the door, goes outside to talk to them and gets shot down. It’s a powerful opening. A small group of high school kids make a break for it in a truck. They hide out in the hills. The town is occupied by a force comprised of Latino soldiers and a few Russian officers. Many People are rounded up and held in fenced in pens. Some are killed. A few are laying low in their houses. The image though that tips the scales and reverberates with even more power than that first one is seen by the boys as they make a tentative trip back into town to assess the situation. Patrick Swayze (Point Break) and his brother Charlie Sheen (Platoon) see their father amongst a group of shattered men and women locked inside a huge fenced in enclosure. Their father who is bleeding from several head wounds is played by Harry Dean Stanton (Cool Hand Luke). They exchange a few words. He tells them they have to get out of there and fast. As they leave he cries out, “Avenge me! Avenge me!” They stop by one house on their way out. Ben Johnson (Last Picture Show) entrusts two heirlooms, his granddaughters to the boys to look after as they retreat back up into the mountains. Red Dawn then becomes the story of how this group begins to fight back.

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The cast is filled with young actors who would go on to become stars. They work very well together making up a believable collection of students forced to go far beyond what they thought they were capable of. Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen and Thomas Howell all went on to big roles after this film. Two adult actors deliver stand out performances, too. Powers Boothe as the American soldier who joins up with them as a father figure / leader gives a nice balance to the mix. The pack of kids are so gung ho they are almost feral in their ferocity. Many of them wear battle style scarves and bandannas. When they ride horses they look as comfortable as western outlaws. These kids move easily with all manner of weapons. They adopt the name of their football team, The Wolverines for themselves. Boothe has a weariness about the fighting that they will only begin to feel after he leaves. Ron O’Neal who will always be known for playing Superfly (1972) is one of the commanders of the Cuban troops. His character was once part of his people’s uprising against an invading force. He feels an identification with the boys that he can’t help. Both of these men give a shade of poignancy to the plot. The film is clearly a fast paced action tale full of fighting, explosions and killings yet there are moments particularly at the end when we see the toll this has taken on the few surviving members of The Wolverines.

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Milius delivers in a big way on the action scenes. He states in his included interview that he added the fighting and large battle set pieces to the script he was given to direct. Milius has always had the reputation for being something of the big chief war mongering hawk with a military fixation. He wears it proudly and was absolutely the right man for this film. The cast all talk fondly, and maybe even a little fearfully of his methods of getting the film done in their interviews. While it is well known that much of John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998) was based on him it needs to be said that he crafted a heartfelt story about surfing and growing up in his film, Big Wednesday (1978). Red Dawn may be a bit of a guilty pleasure but it holds up well today and is still an exciting story.

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Video – 1.85:1
This is a completely satisfying picture. Colors are nice and strong. Black levels hold their own and do not get into any noise or fuzzy territory.

Audio . DTS-HD 5.1 with subtitles offered in English
As expected this is a very active and robust soundscape. Riffle shots will shoot over your head and ping into the distance behind you. Helicopters that fly off screen to the right or left will carry on in the speakers till they fade out. The sound in the battlefields will play through all of your speakers if you have a multi unit system. The subwoofer will also get a nice workout. Mixes like this are a joy to experience. Please turn this one up and give it some gas.

Extras – NEW “A Look Back At Red Dawn” – A 70 minute feature Including Brand-New Stories From Co-Star Doug Toby, Casting Director Jane Jenkins, Production Designer Jackson DeGovia and Editor Thom Noble
Archival Featurettes: “Red Dawn Rising” “Training For WWIII” “Building The Red Menace” “WWIII Comes To Town”
Original Theatrical Trailer. The original poster art inside the case is reversible with the new graphic.

The new documentary and the older interviews are all combine to paint a detailed and compelling picture of how this film was made. The cast was put through all kinds of military style training not to mention the rather unique methods that Milius had as a director on this film. The only wrinkle is that some of the scenes from the film that are edited into the new “Look Back” feature go on too long.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

A*P*E (1976) Blu-Ray Review

February 25th, 2017

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Stars – Joanna Kerns as Joanna De Varona, Alex Nicol, Rod Arrants
Director – Paul Leder

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

What were they thinking when they made this? The story goes that the producers got wind of the fact that Dino De Laurentiis was launching a huge remake of King Kong. If they could put together a quickly made King Kong film of their own they could ride on the coattails of Dino’s gigantic sized advertising campaign all the way to the bank. The plan carries over to the movie poster which throws in the promise of seeing, “Ape defy the JAWS of Giant Shark” You may as well get as many blockbuster movie tie ins as you can. If you were excited that this giant ape was battling a shark on the poster you wouldn’t have to wait long to see it. The film opens with this ape getting loose from his restraints on a ship. He topples into the ocean and is immediately set upon by a rubber shark. He wrestles with this thing like a roadside alligator sideshow in the swamps of Florida. If the ape is supposed to be 36 feet tall then this shark has got to be at least 32 feet. Maybe a film about the shark would be better? Those hopes are dashed when the ape grips the shark’s jaws and rips it right down the middle. Flimsy rubber shark.

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The ape is played by a guy in a costume. The Japanese Kaiju tradition of giant monsters played by actors in costumes is a long and rich one filled with quite a few well done outings. Gojira (1954) aka Godzilla featured a wonderful blending of these effects with the picture.  One of the things that always stands out in these films is the incredible amount of detail to be found in the construction of the miniature cities that the creature stomps over. In Ape it is all cheap cardboard and what looks like fly away paper thin balsa wood. None of the shots of the ape on the loose are convincing in the least. The cities may as well be shoe boxes turned upside down with assorted mismatched windows drawn on them with crayons. The ape does get a nice moment when he does a kind of dance with a guy in a hand glider.

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There are frequent shots that cater to the 3D process. At one point during the ape’s rampage he comes across a film crew shooting a Kung-Fu movie. The actors turn their prop weapons against the advancing creature which gives an excuse to for the spears to be thrust at the camera lens. Director Paul Leder manages to get in his fair share of these shots. There is a sequence of kids playing for an extended period of time before they run away from the ape. The film feel padded out with more than a few lengthy looks at various assembled groups of people running this way and that. It’s not very convincing particularly when the guy in the bad costume makes another poorly choreographed entrance. On the plus side Joanna Kerns from the TV series Growing Pains gets a lead role. We get to see her play an actress making a movie which calls for her to run away from a creepy guy. If you grew up with a love of horror films and giant monster movies the odds are good you sat through dozens of bad ones waiting for the good parts. Many terrible films had to be sifted through in order to get to the real gold. However for most of us all that exposure led to a slow but sure affection for the schlock. Those are the only grounds to approach this film on.

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Video – 2.35:1
The film is presented in both 3D and the regular 2D formats. While there is a good deal of wear and tear to be found on the source materials the film looks okay and is certainly passable. You weren’t expecting a full scale restoration for a copy to be preserved in The Library of Congress were you? This is schlock and while we like our schlock served up in a grade A blue plate special this is as good as this puppy is likely going to get. It really doesn’t take away from the fun you’ll have with it. Colors are strong and well the guy in ape suit looks like a guy in an ape suit, and not a very good one at that.

Audio – DTS-HD 2.9. No subtitles are provided
The film is a typical dubbed affair. Music and effects are stirred in with the voice over actors to give a fairly even track.

Extras – Commentary by cult film authority Chris Alexander and historian Hillary Hess. Theatrical trailer.

Some commentators will throw in a curse for comic effect. Sometimes is a part of a director’s persona like Kevin Smith. However I don’t think I’ve heard a film historian type uses curses as much as this guy. While he seems to know his stuff and have done good research he appears to be pretty down on the film and the whole experience. At one point the brings in an expert to talk about the 3D process. Very little of either chat is scene specific. This was not an enjoyable commentary. We look to commentaries to enhance our appreciation of the film.

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

Blu-Ray – 2D – Fair 3D – N/A
I did not review the 3D which has received given good marks from others.

Movie – Fair

Beauty And The Beast (2014) Blu-Ray Review

February 19th, 2017

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Stars – Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux
Director – Christophe Gans

Released by Shout Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast has been brought to the screen in many incarnations. It was even adapted as a TV series twice; once in 1987 and again in 2012. At this point the animated Disney version from 1991 has taken on all comes and beaten them soundly. The Mouse stands tall. Yet even Disney can’t resist going to the well again with the promise of a new live action version due any moment with the lovely Emma Watson star of the Harry Potter films as Belle. It will be a 3D extravaganza that promises to hue closely to the champion animated version. While The Mouse roared another version came out two years ago. Christophe Gans who created the incredible mix of fantasy, martial arts and period drama with the cult favorite Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) helmed his own version. This one draws much more inspiration from the classic 1946 film version by Jean Cocteau. Gans has created a visual tapestry using a fascinating array of CGI artistry. Everything you see has been artfully crafted as if by a Renaissance artist rather than an army of digital technicians. The look of the film is the star and it sparkles as bright as the north star in the night.

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The construction of the film follows the familiar narrative much in the way that the Cocteau film did with a few additions.  The story used to center more around The Beast yet over the years the point of view has become that of The Beauty. Belle has two greedy sisters, two adventurous brothers an a father who has just gone broke. The father stumbles upon a castle deep in the woods. There he finds food and riches which he grabs for his family. Belle has only asked for a rose unlike her siblings. When the father picks a rose the beast jumps out of nowhere. He is outraged that the bountiful food and shiny trinkets were not enough. He will have to pay with his life for stealing the rose. Back he goes to say goodbye to his family. Only Belle returns instead of her father to pay his debt. She accepts that she was the one who asked for the rose. Rather than take her life The Beast gives her free reign of the grounds as long as she agrees to join him for dinner every night at seven o’clock. Their relationship and the gradual falling of Belle for The Beast is the real crux of the tale.  This unfortunately is the part that gets short changed in Gans’ version. There is not a lot of characterization for either lead but more importantly we don’t get to see them slowly warm to each other. The budding of their romance cuts to the full bloom without letting us enjoy the opening of the petals.

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The film opens with a mother reading a story to her two children, similar to the bookends that framed The Princess Bride. At a few of the scarier parts we revisit this scene for just a moment. Mom asks her children if she should carry on with the story or are they too scared. The boy sits in wide eyed wonder, his sister clutching his hand. Yes, please go on. In the beginning of the film colors are held in check. When the father visits the castle it is foreboding, full of grisly dark details. The trees have sharp branches that reach out like tendrils. However with Belle’s appearance there the entire landscape transforms like an enchanted forest. The foreboding clinging dead vines are now a trellis of pretty flowers. In a flashback sequence we see a lovely girl and a valiant man. He is a hunter and we imagine him to be The Beast before he was transformed. He has a group of lovely hunting beagles that are beyond cute. In a neat turn these beagles have been reimagined as small furry lemur looking creatures with adorably large eyes. They inhabit the present story and hide under the bed. Again the look of this movie is a pleasure to take in.

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At first we do not get a clear look at The Beast. We see glimpses of him. His face is reflected in glasses and highly polished dinnerware. When we do get a real good look several things stand out. The face clearly has more feline features. There are whiskers and a large lion-like nose. The hair is coiffed in a very regal way that absolutely recalls the 1946 Cocteau version. It’s a mask alright but not like any mask we are used to. It has been digitally created. Through a motion capture process Vincent Cassel’s facial acting has been preserved. Those are his eyes, his lips, his voice and yet he moves behind a highly detailed face that has been CGI’d on top of his own face. Sure it looks good but it is a bit difficult to get used to. Cassel is a fantastic actor, capable of subtle nuances that he brings to this role. He’s most well know for The Black Swan but he has done many excellent parts. He worked with director Gans before in Brotherhood of the Wolf and starred in Mesrine (2008) with an amazing portrayal of a gangster who has a flair for disguises. He moves wonderfully in this film. Lea Seydoux is beautiful and very compelling here. Gans says in his interview that he spotted her in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) and knew she was his Beauty for this film. Both actors looks so good in front of scenery that is often breathtaking. It’s a shame that we don’t get the interaction between them that the story calls for.

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Gans’ la Belle et la Bete works best as a visual odyssey. The paintings he creates on screen will stop you in your tracks. As we watch the three interviews included with Gans, Cassel and Seydoux it is revealed that 90% of the film was created digitally. For me the CGI succeeds exceptionally well with the set design. Films like Sin City (2005), 300 (2007), and The BFG (2016) have opened this kind of filmmaking up in unbelievable ways. I’m an old school fan of practical effects. I love the look of hardscrabble landscapes in John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns. CGI has become a favored paintbrush that is used now. It may have looked sloppy and cheap when it first started. In the right hands (and there look to be quite a lot of them judging by the credits at the end of many films) some real artful sequences can be created. I absolutely appreciate the look of the film. I am entirely enchanted by it. However all of this is in service of telling a good story. Gans comes up short with the relationship that is backbone of this fairytale. While that may seem unforgivable it is very easy to get caught up in illustrations on the pages of this fabulously illustrated storybook. Like a good children’s book the pictures are intoxicating.

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Video – 2.35:1
This is a stunning looking film. Images are drop dead gorgeous. The look of the Blu-Ray comes out measurably better than the included DVD.

Audio – DTS-HD 5.1 in both English and French, Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and French with subtitles offered in English.
In the dubbed English version the actors speak with genuine French accents. The French language version is preferable though. Music and effects supports the story but the visuals will always be paramount in this film.

Extras – Interviews with director Christophe Gans, actors Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux, Theatrical trailer

The interviews are done in French with easy to follow English subtitles. Gans is always a good interview. He reveals his inspirations for the film and speaks highly of the Cocteau version. He also goes into good detail about the CGI effects. It is fascinating to hear Vincent Cassel describe how the mask was created. He breaks down the three step process he had to use achieve his performance. He says he had to depend on a whole team of digital artists to help realize his portrayal. He also admits this is the first of his films he can let his kids see.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent (for the visuals)

Colors (1988) Blu-Ray Review

February 18th, 2017

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Stars – Robert Duvall, Sean Penn, Maria Conchita Alonso, Damon Wayans, Don Cheadle, Trinidad Silva
Director – Dennis Hopper

Released by Shout Select / Shout Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Right from the beginning this film feels authentic. There is a haze in the air that you can see and almost feel. As we ride along the devastated suburban streets of East Los Angeles in the late eighties we see run down houses. People sit out on the front lawn in easy chairs that look like they have been left out for the garbage truck to pick up. Hip hop music and rap blares with an aggressive bass thump. There is a constant din of people talking with or at each other. There are tons of school age kids everywhere. They lounge around draped over the railings and stairs in front of houses. Robert Duvall is Hodges the experienced cop. He’s got a new partner Danny played by Sean Penn. Danny is eager to prove his mettle. He spends the days either roughing up people in the neighborhood or combing his hair just right in any available mirror. He is so amped up and eager to prove himself that it feels dangerous to be around him. Hodges on the other hand has an easy rapport with many of the gang members on the streets. He’ll let somebody go and avoid being dragged down to the station as long as they understand they owe him one. It’s Hodges form of credit in the barrio.

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In the excellent interview included as an extra screenwriter Michael Schiffer says he did a lot of research with the real cops who work the gangs. His script conveys this feeling of just riding around day in and day out. Cases come together almost by happenstance with one thing crashing into another. Duvall and Penn behave with such an ease in their roles that we can spend hours aimlessly driving through the various neighborhoods. They liven up the day by jiving around with the locals. Hodges seems to have legitimate feeling for some of the guys he has seen over the years. However when we find out that he has less than a year to go before he retires we can be assured he’ll get shot at the end. There is also a romance between Danny and a pretty local girl Maria Conchito Alonso who he picks up at a fast food joint. While those story arcs feel contrived and hammered into the otherwise easy going script the level of performances that the actors give make this almost forgivable.

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Dennis Hopper did an amazing job with his first film Easy Rider (1969). There was a similar feeling of just cruising around and meeting life on its own terms. Whether you call that a beatnik sensibility or an appreciation for the Mise-en-scène Hopper seems to strike that same groove he had found so long ago. The film he made after Easy Rider, The last Movie (1971) was all but incoherent. He only made one more picture after that and it is easy to see why studio would be hesitant to trust him with any kind of budget. Just like the brilliant cinema photographer Laslo Kovaks helped him with Easy Rider, Haskell Wexler shoots Colors with an incredible eye. You have to credit Hopper too though. Dennis strikes gold like he did with his first film. The look of the film and the absolutely authenticity of almost every single performance stands out. The actors seem very natural. No one is trying to shoot the moon. Things are toned down, reigned in and the control really shows. As soon as I saw Trinidad Silva I immediately pegged him as the wise cracking street tough who somehow became a lawyer on the Hill Street Blues TV series. He excels as the gang leader they call Frog here.

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Amidst all this texture there are a few fight scenes and two car chases that are off the charts. At times it feels like the stunt people are just dying to top the work that William Friedkin did the last time he was in the neighborhood with To Live and Die in L.A. in 1985. Cars drive pedal to the metal through the narrow streets. Tires screech across lawns. Cars trade paint with any wall that gets too close. These two car chases are visceral and a sheer delight to see. The savageness of some of the close quarter fight scenes features some terrific fight choreography. No one fight like any kind of boxer or martial artists. There is a real street quality to these sequences.

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When you watch Colors you get immersed in the gang culture of those days. The drug dealing, the music and the constant tug of war between the Bloods and the Cripps. Blue and red handkerchiefs signify something wroth dying for. The loyalty to the barrio and one’s neighborhood feels very real here. While some of melodramatic turns the narrative takes feel too familiar the overall feel of the film is too good to let that bring it down. Duvall delivers his usual excellent acting job. He really is a splendid actor who is full of subtleties. Penn is capable of exploding. While he’s a firecracker here director Hopper manages to keep him from going off. I had not seen this film in a long time. Not only does it hold up but it truly exceeded all expectations. Ride around the streets with these guys. It’s a helluva trip that comes highly recommended.

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Video – 1.85:1
This is a longer 127 cut. The look of the films is aces. The haze, the heat and everything else just ooze from the screen with the way Wexler shot this. Black levels, colors and details are all fine. You’re in such good hands with DP Wexler here. There is a night scene that features a chase through a couple of blocks. We look down from high overheard as a searchlight from a police chopper pinpoints the guy trying to run away. The cops on the ground follow the light. It’s a cool looking shot that must have been a bear to get right.

Audio – DTS-HD Master Stereo with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The soundtrack has a lot of rap but also some wonderful songs that just hit the time and place. Songs like One Time One Night by Los Lobos and Low Rider by War feel just right. There are also a couple of doo wop songs that gently waft in the background. They play ever so gently and sweetly. Herbie Hancock’s soundtrack at times is dated by the synthesizer sounds but most of it is cool and evocative. He seems like he is standing on the shoulders of Quincy Jones many times and that’s a big compliment.

Extras – The Unrated Cut of the Film, including footage restored from the International Cut and the original Home Video Cut.
“A Cry of Alarm” – An interview with screenwriter Michael Schiffer
“Cops and Robbers” – An interview with Technical Advisor/Ex-L.A.P.D. Gang Division Dennis Fanning

The lengthy interview with screenwriter Michael Schiffer is wonderful. He tells the whole story of how he got what was his first job with this film. He’s got strong recall about working with Dennis Hopper and the actors in the film. It’s nice to see how revealing he is about what he tried to accomplish and how gratified he felt when his work came to life in the hands of actors like Duvall.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent