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Archive for June, 2014

The Train (1964) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, June 28th, 2014


Stars – Burt Lancaster,Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon, Wolfgang Preiss
Director – John Frankenheimer

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screen archives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Burt Lancaster has said that he made two kinds of movies. Those with long hair and those with a short hair cut. The former were generally fun action films like The Professionals, The Flame and The Arrow, and The Crimson Pirate that let him do lots of stunts and flash that wonderful grin of his. The later tended to be more adult fare like Sweet Smell of Success and Birdman of Alcatraz. The vast majority of films made in the sixties were in color. The few that came out in black and white stood apart with more serious subject  matter. Films like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Lonely Are The Brave (1962) were looked at in a different light because of that decision. Neither of these classifications are absolute. It is worth noting however that of the five films Lancaster made with director John Frankenheimer between 1961 and 1969 only one was in color. Even though there are many emotions at play in The Train including several action set pieces it’s safe to say that Frankenheimer does indeed want this film to be taken seriously.

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Based on a true story chronicled in the book Le front de l’art (1961), and set at the waning days of the German occupation of France during WWII the film follows both the efforts of a German officer and a French resistance fighter. John Scofield plays Colonel Von Waldheim. He has acquired a huge catalog of French paintings that have been stored and displayed inside a private mansion / museum. He has devoted himself to taking these works of art into Germany. He has them inventoried, crated and prepared for delivery via the commandeered use of a train. We see him negotiate the permissions needed from the hierarchy of officers above him. Lancaster plays the scheduler at a train yard who is also active in the resistance. Their numbers have dwindled. Every act they take is a risk of human life. It is suggested that they stop the train or at least sabotage its progress long enough for the arrival of the Allied fighters who are due to liberate France any day.  At first they take a pass. We don’t see any stirring surge of patriotism behind their change of mind. Mostly it driven by the fact that one of their own has been shot by the Nazis. This old hard scrabble engineer seemed more intent on pissing them off than anything else. They pushed him and he pushed back.

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The bulk of the film then follows a cat and mouse game between Scofield and Lancaster with each trying out outmaneuver the other. At times it plays like a suspenseful action film and at others it succumbs to a more dramatic arc. It’s a tribute to director Frankenheimer that both play right alongside each other. The scenes with Jeanne Moreau can be a trifle forced but other than that the drama greases the wheels for some powerful set pieces. There are a lot of schisms drawn here too. The line between the sophisticated and the working class is right there. These resistance fighters are dirty guys who run trains. They are covered in soot and grime. They are rough fellows and not at all the type who would even know where a museum is let along be able to tell one piece of art from another. Their devotion to the cause is as pure as the reflex to hit back.

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We are asked several times whether a collection of paintings are worth the human life that it costs to keep them out of the Nazi’s hands. Frankenheimer shows us that cost in blood covered bodies. We see characters stood up against a wall and shot. Many of these men and women do not even understand or appreciate what these paintings mean. The German officer who is trying to get these works of art out of France exhibits an educated and critical feeling for them far greater than almost anyone else in the film. Frequently both the German soldiers and the French resistance fighters only agree to help when they learn the monetary value of these paintings. It works well that Frankenheimer barely gives us much more than a glimpse of any of the paintings.

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This film is a bit long as was the habit with many of the war films in that era. One thing that has to be stressed though is that all of the action sequences work beautifully. Some emphasize a fearful chase that crackles with nerve wracking suspense. At other time we see these huge behemoth trains crash into one another and tumble off the rails. There is much mayhem. The acts of sabotage are clever but always risky. Even though this is an “important” film the drama sits very comfortably with the combat inherent in the story. Neither the characterization nor the action is short changed.



Video – 1.66:1
This is a superb rendering of Jean Tournier’s black and white photography. There are wonderful compositions. Detail is strong and the full spectrum from deep blacks through a wide ranging gray scale to white is nicely represented. The look of this film is easily one of its strongest selling points. Clearly Frankenheimer wanted to present more than an action picture. Tournier’s camerawork here lets him do that without having to resort to any lengthy expositions or heavy handedness. Any gravitas needed is more than supplied but the captivating lensmanship on display here. Blu-ray can make a well shot black and white film look like a million bucks.

Audio – DTS 1.0 mono track in English with subtitles offered in English SDH
This is the only portion of the film that comes up short for me. There is some voice dubbing that challenges your involvement with some scenes. It is not that often but if you can spot it it does diminish the effectiveness of the conversations on screen. Even though this is a mono track the soundstage is not set as well as it could be. There is some use of echo to establish the distance and size of things, however many locations are left to fend for themselves, dependant largely on the photography. The train itself would have benefited from a more attentive and creative use of effects.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, Commentary with director Frankenheimer, Another commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman, Trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

Favor (2013) DVD Review

Saturday, June 28th, 2014


Stars – Blayne Weaver, Patrick Day, Cheryl Nichols, Christina

Director – Paul Osborne

Released by Horizon / Kino

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

“You can tell how good a friend is by whether or not they’ll help you move a  dead body…”. That’s a terrific opening line. Two old friends stay up late  knocking back the beers. After that opening gambit, one asks the other if he  would really do it. This is a low budget Indie film that has a clever premise and two very solid actors. Blayne Weaver is Kip the friend who asks the first favor. Patrick Day is Marvin the friend who agrees then extracts an escalating series of favors as payback for the first one. Kip has gotten involved with another woman. This may not have been the first time. She calls him out to a hotel room and through a tragic mishap hits her head and dies. If this gets out it will ruin Kip’s marriage, his successful ad agency and enviable lifestyle. Marvin comes through. He does his old buddy the ultimate solid. He buries the body deep in the woods. Two things though. One – Marvin is kind of weird and Kip really doesn’t hang out with him much anymore. Second – the girl wakes up and Marvin elects to finish her off.

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A day later Marvin rescues the dead girl’s cat and starts in with the favors from Kip. Would his wife fix him up with one of her friends that are always complaining they can never find a good man. The date is a predictable disaster. Marvin keeps showing up at Kip’s office eventually leveraging him into giving him a job he doesn’t deserve. Marvin is awful at the job. Kip’s loyal office admin thinks this guy has got to go. Kip’s wife thinks this old friends needs to stop showing up at their house. He is a loser.

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It’s fine that the success of the film rests on the shoulders of Blayne Weaver and Patrick Day. They carry it well. The rest of the casting works well too. Christina Rose as the office admin Kimber is all up beat flattery. She practically swoons and falls for Kip’s charms at every turn. He even ask if she it putting it on. Before she can answer he says keep it up, it’s working, She has a very effervescent style that suits the part. Allison Martin is spot on as the tough as nails detective Pinback. She‘s right out of one of those Crime Scene TV shows; self assured and pushy. The narrative rides on the performances that director Paul Osborne gets from his cast. The escalation of favors from Marvin goes form indulgent to pushy to invasive to terrorizing. The photography is really the only element that is openly lacking. Everything looks flat with no depth.

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More of a creepy drama than a thriller as the poster would have you believe, Favor is thoroughly enjoyable. The two old childhood friends who renew their relationship with the disposal of a dead body exhibit lots of strong characterization. One is so suave, good looking and successful. He has it all – a great job, a gorgeous wife, women falling all over him, money, a nice house. Marvin just wants a little of that for himself. What could be wrong with that? A favor for a favor. Kudos to writer / director writer Paul Osborne for crafting a script around two friends that can pull it off. He says in the making of feature that he wrote it with them in mind. Hey, he did them a favor by writing a movie script for them and they returned the favor by agreeing to be in it. Every once in a while a clever low budget Indie film succeeds on little else but talent and the resources of friends. Well done.

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Video – 1.78:1
The film has an overall flatness to it. There is little contrast or creative lighting on display. The photography is the one element in the mix here that comes up short. However it does not take away at all from the marvelous acting and fun plotting. It was a very cheap production.

Audio – 5.1 mix
All dialogue is clear as it should be with a film like this. There is an interesting spare keyboard score that plays at key cues during the film. It’s well thought out and supports the film effectively. Effects are mixed in okay .

Extras – Commentary with director Osborne, actors Weaver and Day, Party Favor -behind the scenes, Phoenix Film Festival Q & A session, Deleted Scenes, Extended scenes, Trailer

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

DVD – Fair / Good

Movie – Excellent

Bloody Birthday Blu-Ray (1981) Review

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014


Stars – Lori Lethin, Julie Brown , Joe Penny , K.C. Martel , Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jacoby, ,Susan Strasberg , Jose Ferrer

Director – Ed Hunt

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

There are a number of killer kid films that range from the dramatic style of The Bad Seed (1956 ) to the creepy Sci-Fi chiller Village of the Damned (1960). The Other (1972 ) brought a slice of period Americana to the genre. This one is not in the offbeat realm of movies like David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) or the truly strange Spanish film Who Can Kill A Child (1976) . Bloody Birthday may be the most straight ahead of them all. Three kids are born during an eclipse. On their tenth birthday they share a cake and an insatiable desire to just start offing everyone in the neighborhood. This is exactly what we get. The film has a very bright television feel to it. Colors are bright like a Tide commercial and everyone is dressed is terrible fashions with bright smiles. The music even feels like it came from The FBI or The Street of San Francisco. Were it not for all the killings and nudity you could feel like you are watching any number of later seventies TV shows. The girls have all the requisite eighties posters on their walls -Erik Estrada, Blondie, and even Ted Nugent.

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There is no real explanation or motivation given for the threesome’s sudden urge to start killing. The plot just moves along. We’re concerned with their efforts to get rid of a nosy kid who may be onto to them. They lock him in a junkyard refrigerator just like mom warned you about. The children are pretty methodical and resourceful with their campaign. There is a peep hole that the cute little girl killer has been charging the boys a quarter to look through at her big sister undressing. She takes advantage of that to shoot an arrow into an inquisitive eye. The slaughter is not particularly graphic though there is plenty of bloodshed. Thanks to one kid with a pistol there is lots of gunplay. We even get some vehicular murder. What drives the film is the terrific performances that director Ed Hunt gets out of his child actors. They all take it seriously and give it just the right tone. Lori Lethin who is recognizable from a ton of TV work also turns in a believable role as the heroine. Jose Ferrer makes an odd cameo as does Susan Strasberg.

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Bloody Birthday is a clever twist on the typical eighties slasher genre. It moves at a very good clip and delivers plenty of thrills. Nothing is scary or over the top in terms of gore but it works. It’s that not well know a film but you’ll have a good time with it if you haven’t seen it. Before you take a bite make sure the birthday cake isn’t poisoned.

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Video – 185: 1
This looks pretty good for the most part. Colors are strong. The majority of the film has a wholesome sunshiny look to it. The first killing that takes place in the back of a car though it is almost unwatchable. You can hardly see anything in the murky indistinct shadows. Black levels are not handled well. However most of the film takes place in brightly lit interiors and sun lit exteriors so that problem does not interfere with the vast majority of your viewing. Source materials are in decent shape but do not expect this to look like a reference copy or a restoration. It look good, not great.

Audio – Dolby Digital English track in Mono with no subtitles offered.
Sound is okay. All dialogue is clear though some of the dubbing gets a bit muffled here and there. The film presents itself very much like a TV movie and has that same decent but not very cinema -like sound to it.

Extras – Audio Interview with Director Ed Hunt, Don’t Eat The Cake! Interview With Lori Lethin, A Brief History Of Slasher Films Featurette . Lori Lethin is fun to listen to and has a very likeable presence.

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

Blu-Ray – Fair/ Good

Movie – Good

The Man From Laramie (1955) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, June 21st, 2014


Stars – James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Crisp, Cathy O’Donnell
Director – Anthony Mann

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screen archives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Westerns in the fifties underwent a powerful change. Elements of Film Noir crept into the look and feel of them. Characters now had more texture and shading thanks to the new psychological underpinnings that were becoming more popular in the mainstream. Gone were the white hat wearing good guys and black hat adorned bad guys. There were those with a shady past who were now attempting to turn their life around. Despicable men were capable of humanitarian acts but they were still bad guys. After showing much more range than he had in his early career James Stewart made a series of movies with two very capable and personally driven directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. The five films he made with Mann stand as some of the most interesting and plain best westerns of the decade. This is the last of the bunch and it packs a real wallop.

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Stewart rides into town with a delivery of goods for the local store. He looks to load up on some salt found out in the hills to sell for the trip back. While he and his men are shoveling the salt into the wagons they are set upon by a bully. This man and his crew light his wagons on fire and shoot the mules. It is a horrific display. Even his men seem to think he is going too far. Terrible as it is the blazing wagons are something to behold. The Technicolor flames dance against the barren landscape. Like some of the brutality in Film Noirs, there is a dark kind of beauty to this spectacle. Stewart pays his men off and concentrates on another agenda. He rides into town looking for the guy who sold some repeating rifles to the Indians that ambushed and killed his brother. Once there he spots the bully. Mann gives us a remarkable tracking shot with Stewart advancing on the camera as we pull back letting him build up speed and purpose. The fight that takes place is not pretty. Another man, Arthur Kennedy steps in when Stewart leaves the bully in a trough of water. A brutal fight spills into a cattle pen as the guys roll around on the ground. All we can see are the cattle and dust obscuring the fight. Mann has a real eye for what drives these encounters. Many times he’ll focus on the grimace of the guy dishing out the pain as if it hurts him just as much.

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The bully and Kennedy belong to the Waggoman clan. The patriarch father played by Donald Crisp owns all the land for miles in every direction. He appears hard headed and fearsome but there may be other demons lurking inside this man. He lives in fear of a dream of a man who comes to town to kill his son. Stewart and the spoiled bully son have an escalating series of fights that get really out of hand. At one point two guys hold Stewart’s arm out while the sick bad guy presses a pistol point blank to his hand…and then shoots a hole in his hand . You then see Stewart from the back, framed against the darkening sky as two guys help him on his horse. Everyone feels the pain. Mann gives us a lot of close ups of faces grimacing and wincing at the violence around them. This is one dark picture with plot constructions and relationships that reveal deep buried wounds. Anthony Mann successfully builds this to mythic proportions. Kennedy and Stewart turn in great performances. This one really stands out.

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Sam Peckinpah is often credited with changing the face of the American western and rightly so. However the six films that Budd Boetticher did with Randolph Scott and the five that Anthony Mann made with James Stewart in the fifties are equally influential.  These guys had a style. Watching these films is an open invitation to get more than the story out of them. Both Mann and Boetticher cut their teeth making budget films for minor studios. They churned out noirs and other programmers on tight schedules. There were no interfering studio hot shots peering over their shoulder. As long as the picture got made and quickly they got another one to do. Working under these conditions allowed them a freedom they never would have had directing bigger pictures with marquis stars. As they got better, and had the chance to work with some name actors they retained that sense of freedom and creativity. It is in these fifties westerns that the directors’ styles merged with a more daring kind of storytelling.


Video – 2.55:1
Touted as the first time this film has been presented in its original aspect ratio, this is a stunning looking film. Charles Lang’s widescreen work here is fabulous. The first time we see the town he lets Stewart and his riders make a full semi circle around the edges of the frame before stopping. He gets some rugged textures out of the landscape. What is most noticeable is the awful grimaces and pained expressions that are captured on these men’s faces as they feel what happens. There are some plain gorgeous shots but just like Stewart’s character there is darkness with the light. The Technicolor process is well represented here. Colors can be bold. There is also a very deep inky black level and nice gray scale that is drawn from. There is ample grain just as it should be. Don’t be surprised if during some of the action you find yourself just admiring the composition of the shot that Lang has set up.

Audio – 5.1 DTS HD track, subtitles offered in English SHD At first the notion of a 5/1 track seems dubious here but it accents and compliments rather than changes the mix. There is no directionality to the soundstage but we do get a deep bass resonance to underscore the action and add texture to some of the dialogue. The one thing that these adult grown up westerns had yet to jettison was the inspired song that plays over the credits.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music and effects track, Trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic