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Archive for February, 2013

Pony Soldier (1952) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Stars: Tyrone Power, Thomas Gomez, Stuart Randall, Cameron Mitchell
Director: Joseph Newman
Released by Twlight Time

Limited Edition of 3,000 units
Available through screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been presented on the screen in several incarnations through the years. They are easily recognizable in their bright red jackets. Their unshakable commitment to upholding the law in the remote territories of the Canadian provinces is legendary. The first one most of us would call to mind would be Dudley Do-Right from the Sixties TV classic Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. There was a successful Television series Sergeant Preston of the Yukon that ran in the mid to late fifties. Who could forget the chorus in Monty Python’s Lumberjack sketch? But back in 1952 matinee idol and star of such swashbucklers as The Black Swan (1942) and The Mark of Zorro (1940), Tyrone Power donned the colorful tunic and took on the role of Constable Duncan MacDonald.

Constable Duncan is charged with going after a tribe of Cree Indians who have left their sanctioned territory in search of food. In case anyone comes after them they have kidnapped a man and woman to be used as hostage bargaining chips. Natayo Smith is the peaceful but conniving journeyman man who sees this transgression and reports it to the RCMP. He tries to trade this information for one of those new Enfield rifles and some other supplies. However Constable Duncan finds a bottle of forbidden booze in his bag and the commanding officer at the outpost blackmails him into escorting Duncan into the Indian’s camp. Thomas Gomez plays the reluctant guide for strict comic relief. He’s lots of fun in the old school Alan Hale fashion. With only the two of them to rescue the hostages and talk the tribe into claming down and returning to the reservation he‘s got his work cut out for him. It’s also a pretty talky strategy for a western.

The chief of the tribe Standing Bear played by Stuart Randell who was in many TV western series seems reasonable enough. He’s a strong leader with a mature demeanor who cares for his people. The one to recon with is Konah. He’s a hot head who led the war party that kidnapped the hostages and killed a few innocent settlers in the process. Hidden under many layers of dark make-up and given to lets of yelling and violent posturing Cameron Mitchell (Toolbox Murders) is a scary guy and the main villain of the film. Oddly the picture sees fit to throw in an adorable little Indian orphan who wants to be adopted by Tyrone Power .The Character of Comes Running later christened Duncan Comes Running after his new dad is straight out of a Disney movie. He does however get to fire off a very decisive arrow in the end earning new respect from Chief Standing Bear and Constable Duncan.

Pony Solider seems caught between the tides. On the one hand it’s still very much a part of the western tradition of the thirties and forties where the good guys all wore white hats and the bad guys wore black ones. Heroes were easy to spot and the predictability of the films was met with open arms by a huge adoring audience. The films had rousing action scenes with no blood shed and a lot of ooh-they-got-me grab your chest and fall to the ground deaths. Cowboys had an endless supply of bullets that never missed. Later on in the fifties a new kind of western appeared: the more adult psychological western. Director Anthony Mann made a series of films with James Stewart as did Budd Boetticher with Randolph Scott that virtually redefined the entire genre. They focused on characters that were complicated. Heroes were often tainted with a past they sought to escape. Supposed villains exhibited a code of ethics that was not so black and white. Tyrone Power plays a character whose morality is as clear as Dudley Do-Right’s. There are only two very brief bits of action in the whole film. Power could be a very strong actor as he had shown in the film noir, Nightmare Alley (1947). He draws on those skills as he works his way through the dialogue heavy script, particularly in the second half. It’s an interesting effort that doesn’t wholly satisfy either kind of western.

Video – 1.33:1
Bright red is the order of the day here as the Mounties’ jackets blast off the screen. It’s a pleasure to see the color represented without any fading here. Much has been made of the landscapes in this film, yet they feel kind of flat. In just a few short years director Budd Boetticher would take his crew into the scraggy and rough terrains that would give his films a legitimacy that had never been see before. He brought a rugged beauty to the genre. Pony Solider, again caught between the changing tides of the western film does not sport the kind of breathtaking horizons that John Ford would shoot either. There are several occasions during the film where the stability of the colors waver. It’s a subtle temperature change that’s likely attributable to the source material. On the whole Pony Soldier is very satisfying to watch.

Audio – 1.0 DTS HD English track
Alex North’s score sounds great here. All dialogue is presented strongly. The few times there is any gunfire the sound effects are pleasingly recognizable to fans of the genre.

Extras – Twlight Time presents their signature isolated soundtrack. Alex North would go on to higher profile pictures like Spartacus and Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf in later years. Fans of soundtracks will be happy to revel in this early score of his.

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Good

Tai Chi Zero (2012) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Stars: Yuan Xiaochao, Angelababy, Tony Leung
Director: Stephen Fung
Released by Well Go USA Entertainment

Reviewed by Richard J. Doyle

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is born with a strange abnormality.  A protuberance, like a cross between a wart and a small horn, sitting on his forehead.  He discovers it’s purpose one day while watching a martial arts demonstration in the town square.  When he’s accidentally struck on the forehead, he goes into a kind of trance and starts performing all the martial arts techniques he’s just witnessed.  The master conducting the demonstration tells Lu Chan that what he has is “three blossoms on the crown,” a much sought after trait that makes him a martial arts prodigy.  He convinces Lu Chan ‘s mother (Qi Shu) to let him take Lu Chan under his wing and train him.

Flash forward ten years and Lu Chan is a soldier for the Divine Truth Army, who uses him as a secret weapon.  This turns out to be very dangerous to his health.  A doctor (Siu-Lung Leung) explains to him that using his powers with strong martial arts styles is killing him, and if he wants to continue, he’ll need to switch to a more inwardly directed style.  He directs him to Chen Village to learn from Master Chen (Tony Leung).

Lu Chan arrives at Chen Village and receives a warm reception until he reveals his desire to learn from Master Chen.  Chen’s daughter Yunia (Angelababy) informs him that no outsiders may learn the Chen style and promptly banishes him from the village. Lu Chan tries to sneak back into the village from multiple directions, but learns that all the villagers are masters of the Chen style and he is repelled every time.

Meanwhile, Yunia’s fiance Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng), who has gone to Europe for his education, returns promising the gift of Western technology in the form of a railroad.  It seems the governor has charged him with getting permission to build the railroad through Chen Village.  When his offer is turned down, he returns with an army, a European girlfriend … and a giant steam-powered behemoth that he will use to tear down the village unless they capitulate to his demands.

“Tai Chi Zero” is, in one sense, part of the genre of films from Hong Kong that tell the story of martial arts pioneers (Jet Li’s “Fearless” and Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man” would be the most recent examples).  Yang Lu Chan is one of the founders of Tai Chi, and he did base his teachings on a style of fighting he learned in Chen Village.  To say that this story is highly fictionalized would certainly be an understatement.  The film is an odd mixture of elements that don’t always sit together too well.  The mechanical monstrosity that plays a large role in the film’s climax adds “steampunk” elements to the film that don’t feel properly integrated into the story.  The entire film has a hyper self-aware, video game aesthetic to it.  Every major character that is introduced is paired with onscreen text that identifies the actor playing them, frequently paired with an explanation of who they are (when Andy Lau pops up briefly, the onscreen text excitedly identifies him as the director of “Infernal Affairs”).  In addition, a lot of onscreen graphics make explicit video game references, from identifying sections of the film as “Round 1″, “Round 2″, etc. to showing character’s life lines on the screen.

This will undoubtedly be the deciding feature of the film for most viewers.  These aspects of the film really don’t work well, but it’s debatable whether they work well enough to let other aspects of the film shine through.  At its heart, this is a solid martial arts film.  The fight choreography is by Sammo Hung, and it’s solid and inventive.  A lot of the participants (as identified right on screen) are actual practitioners of the styles they display on screen or veterans of the genre.  So while the film is undeniably too hyperactive and flashy for it’s own good, I think it’s heart is in the right place and that will shine through for genre fans.

Video – 1.85:1 This is a brand new film, so it looks excellent on the Blu-Ray.

Audio – Mandarin HD  5.1 track with subtitles offered in English or Chinese. The Blu-Ray also offers a dubbed English track in HD 5.1.

Extras – The Blu-Ray contains a Making Of feature and a music video.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Good

Special Forces (2011) DVD Review

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Stars: Diane Kruger, Djimon Hounsou
Director: Stephane Rybojad
Released by E One Entertainment

French, original title: Forces Speciales

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Originally titled Forces Speciales, this French film looks to be a slam bang action tale about the French troop deployment in Afghanistan. It opens with a poorly edited battle sequence that won’t satisfy the war movie fans in the audience. People run every which way, many shots are fired but there is no one to root for as it all goes by in a jumbled blur. Things settle down and we meet Elsa Casanova a war correspondent who has latched onto the story of a young woman and her brutalized treatment at the hands of the Taliban. Her involvement only serves to escalate her predicament. In short order the reporter is held captive and threatened with being beheaded if she won’t read something into the camera. It’s a recognizable scene with the young woman surrounded by thugs brandishing high caliber rifles and machine guns. She stands up to them and refuses. The man in charges can not bring himself to kill her and is ridiculed by his peers and leaders for it. The Special Forces snap into action and rescue her. That rescue is a little easier to follow but still has unnecessary editing flourishes that get in the way of the narrative. The excessive use of CGI blood just looks cheap.

Diane Kruger plays Elsa. She was also cast in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). She does a nice job with the role and delivers her lines in fluent French with a very comfortable accent. Though sometimes it feels like her lines were dubbed. At this point the film turns into a survival trek with the gallant soldiers leading the fair maiden out of harm’s way. They have to cross hot sands while being pursued by the shamed Taliban leader who must kill her to regain his stature with his comrades. None of his guerilla soldiers seem capable of hitting the broad side of a barn whenever they shoot at anything. The Special Forces guys are given less than thumbnail sketches which makes it hard to care for them as they begin to fall one by one. One is called Tic Tac, one is a sniper and one is a tough guy who warms to Elsa after putting her down. The rest all kind of blur together. They are led by Djimon Hounsou who gave memorable performances in Blood Diamond (2006) and Gladiator (2000).

There is a somewhat tender scene as a rural village extends hospitality to the exhausted pack of guys and their gal. This says something about the contrast of the people there but that’s never really defined as someone explains that they have to show hospitality to everyone. Our Taliban leader leads an attack on the village as retribution which in turn triggers a hastily led defense by the Special Forces guys. This last skirmish is the best edited of the three action set pieces though it makes no sense at all. A highly trained elite Special Forces unit would exhibit a much more developed sense of strategy and execution than the quick-let’s-get-‘em approach they take. The rest of the film is an arduous journey through the freezing cold and icy snow covered terrain that leads to freedom. It’s a very long film at 109 minutes with most of it spent walking around. There is very little action for a war movie. Special Forces is really a survival tale that is populated by characters with very little depth or background shown about them. Diane Kruger is good but much of that appreciation may be down to remembering her from the Tarantino film.

Video – 2.35:1
The initial battle sequence is shot and edited so that we never get a genuine feel for the action. Contrast is not managed well. Yet later on in the film when the band of soldiers is on the run it feels as if someone else was handling the photography. At that point the exteriors are far more satisfying. The raid on the village is edited with much more space to it allowing us to appreciate some of the action. The landscapes in the last third of the film have a nice rugged look. Color is not strong but that appears intentional and effective.

Audio – 2.0 Engllish, 5.1 English/French. Subtitles offered in English and SDH
The dubbed English track while serviceable feels disconnected from some of the characters especially the lead actress, Diane Kruger. The main track presents a mix of English and French. The whole mix never feels right. The few battles scenes are not strongly engaging. There is a lot of dialogue that does not feel connected enough to the scene it is in whether that is attributable to the initial recording or the mix it leaves the listened at a distance from the actors.

Extras – Real Life Special Forces, Deleted Scenes

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

DVD – Fair / Good

Movie – Fair

In Like Flint (1967) Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Stars: James Coburn, Lee J. Cobb, Jean Hale, Andrew Duggan, Anna Lee, Steve Ihnat
Director: Gordon Douglas
Released by Twilight Time
Limited Edition of 3,000 Units

Available at Screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Right from the start In Like Flint leans far more into the camp territory than its predecessor, Our Man Flint (1965). We still get that same cool character Derek Flint, but this time he takes a little longer to make his entrance and the set up is truly wacky. While a spaceship launch is being hijacked a la James Bond we’re introduced to a cabal of the world’s most powerful women. This consortium is ensconced in a secret island hideaway. We see a trio of women who all wear the very latest in fashion and a collection of hats that are truly eye catching. These women control the fashion industry, cosmetics and publishing. Their influence is international. Through tape recorders secreted in hairdryers in beauty salons they have been slowly indoctrinating the women of the world. If all goes according to plan they will take over the earth.

When they kidnap the President of the United States on a golf course and replace him with an actor under their control their plan is reaching the finish line. However it turns out that the head of Z.OW.I.E. Lloyd Cramden was on the links with the big guy when the switch happened and he suspects something is amiss. Lee J. Cobb reprises his role as the continually flustered and put upon chief. Who’s he gonna call? Flint, of course. James Coburn is still his groovy grinning self. This time out when we meet him he is deep in conversation with dolphins. He flies to Moscow to dance in a ballet. Who else but Coburn would pull this stuff off? He looks great in that red and black outfit dancing on stage with all the Russian Ballerinas. The colors in this Blu-Ray are so bold and vibrant that the sequence becomes electric. There is another bit later on where Flint has to sneak into the secret island compound. He walks through a large underground steam bath that is cloaked in deep red hues with tantalizing silhouettes of women and carefully placed towels along the edges. Not only is the color breathtaking but there is genuine depth to the sequence. It is easy to get seduced by the look of the film.

The action scenes play out nicely. James Coburn handles his fight scenes with finesse and a lithe athleticism few other actors could bring to the role. Jerry Goldsmtih’s music is effervescent and very catchy. The costumes, as in the first one, reflect the cutting edge of fashion and revel in that mod look. However the plot line has all the depth of an episode of Batman, the TV series. At times it feels like an elongated Wild Wild West adventure. That can be fun but at 114 minutes it is just too long and overstays its welcome. The success of the Flint series gave Coburn the box office muscle to call his own shots and the first picture he used his new found power to put into production was The President’s Analyst (1967). That was a far richer satire than this. It was more subversive and had a stronger bite to the humor. However you can see Coburn stepping easily from one role to the other taking that same devilish grin and fashion sense with him.

In Like Flint is easily seen as the lesser of the two Flint films. However it still has plenty of charm. As with the first one the production design and overall look of the film will effortlessly draw you in. The bizarre hats, the wild costumes, the powerful colors and the various locations all play out beautifully. Once you’ve seen the first one it’s impossible not to take another bite. Derek Flint is a character that is so much fun to spend time with. His gadgets, his impossibly easy way with women, his world class achievements are all carried with the ease with which one would casually throw a jacket over your shoulders and grin.

Video – 2.35:1
This is eye candy from the top shelf. Right from the Bond inspired credits you’ll be seduced. Detail is strong. Black levels are deep. Colors are powerful and vibrant throughout. A few sequences like the Moscow Ballet and underground steam bath are absolute stand outs for color resolution. They bring out the very best that the Blu-Ray medium has to offer.

Audio – English 5.1 DTS HD and English 1.0 DTS HD. Subtitles are offered in English SDH.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score just shines here. Like the first one we can hear little bits of his themes interwoven into incidental music at the most fun places. It’s amusing to spot them. All dialogue is represented well including the rich tones of Coburn’s lines. He gets that undercoating of bass that feel like it does in the big movie theaters. That’s one of the nicest benefits of a well mixed track. The mono track is rightfully preserved for the purists while the new 5.1 track gives ample room for Goldsmith’s score to showboat and strut a bit.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated track. Like the other TT Flint this one is also loaded with features ported over from the previously released DVD box set
Commentary with Film Historians Lee Pfeiffer and Eddy Friedfeld , Derek Flint: The Secret Files, James Coburn: The Man Beyond the Spy, Designing Flint, Flint vs Zanuck: The Missing 3 Minutes, Take it Off, Puerto Rico Premiere, Future Perfect, Feminine Wiles, Spy School, Musician’s Magician, Spy Vogue, Screen Test and Trailers.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good