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Archive for July, 2014

Brannigan (1975)) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

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Stars – John Wayne, Richard Attenborough, James Booth, Judy Geeson, Mel Ferrer, John Vernon, Ralph Meeker,
Director – Douglas Hickox

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The film opens with an extreme close up of a pistol. We see a Colt .38 Special in exquisite detail. It’s a Diamondback with a four inch barrel. It may look cool and we may even realize that this piece will figure strongly in the following movie But it is not a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world. That gun belongs to Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry. John Wayne has made many great films however one gets the feeling he picked up the wrong gun for this one. Clint Eastwood moved easily from his Western Man with No Name success into the urban landscape with only one step between the genres in his friend Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968 ) . Wayne is mostly known as a cowboy. He made westerns and rode horses in almost everything he appeared in. There was one great exception – A Quiet Man (1952 ). One that was a lot of fun with Lee Marvin – Donovan’s Reef (1963). And then there is Hatari (1962 ) which gave us Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk theme. Well that’s not entirely true. He also made a lot of successful war pictures. He was able to make his stoic hero persona work in those films. The attempts to bring him into a contemporary detective milieu like 1974’s McQ just did not work. I do not think there are any complex reasons there. Had he tried before with a good script and a good director on his game he may have made it work. Apparently he chose not to. His last film was the fittingly elegiac The Shootist (1976). Director Don Siegel let him go out with tremendous style.

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Brannigan is a rough Irish detective in Chicago. We first see him bursting in on a counterfeiter. He tricks him into giving up the location of a wanted crook with an empty pistol pointed at his head and then throws off a one liner. The seemingly off hand remark that is tossed of so effortlessly has become a staple of action pictures. These lines have to have a zing or at least elicit a knowing grin from the audience. The script by four writers has not a good one between them. The bad guy that Wayne is after has skipped the country. In short order Brannigan is a on plane bound for England. His quarry is John Vernon (Animal House). Once the plane touches down he is greeted by Judy Geeson (To Sir With Love) . The flirtatious lines between them in the script do not work at all. Later in the film she gives him a peck on the cheek because he is so solid. What does catch your eye during their dialogue are the wonderful location shots in London. The city looks great in this film. We can read the show marquees and see great detail in the the various shops and eateries.

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His main contact there is Commander Swann played wonderfully by Richard Attenborough. Their various exchanges work well. They eat and drink a lot together and establish a good camaraderie. Attenborough chides him about the pistol he is carrying. We know he will use it to good effect by the end of the film. There is some questioning of people but the investigation lacks any depth or real urgency. It’s just one guy trying to get another guy before he leaves the country. The plot takes a twist when Vernon is kidnapped. His attorney Mel Ferrer gathers the money quickly for the pay off. This set up and staged ransom appears phony right from the get go so there is little suspense or interest contributed to the narrative. It just goes on like an episode of a TV show rushing to the commercial break.

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There are a couple of very pedestrian car chases that are poorly photographed. We spend too much time inside the cars. By 1975 films like The French Connection (1971) and Bullitt (1968) had upped the ante for more realistic car chases well beyond what this film offers. Director Hickox doesn’t build any tension or excitement. The car jump between the opening of a bridge feels lackluster, too. There is not much made of the big yank and his attitudes having to made a go of it across the big pond. You can almost hear the writers reaching for the kind rapport that Dennis Weaver’s transplanted New Mexican Marshal had with his New York City counterparts on the TV series McCloud which was a big hit on TV when this film came out. The other factor that deflates most of the exposition is Dominic Frontiere’s score. He is well known for his Star Trek and Outer Limits TV themes however everything here is so overplayed and jaunty. The strings and horns are bright and peppy. The sound cues that were chosen undermine what little action there is. That’s not to say that he doesn’t do good work. It’s just not a good fit here. His best work in films has a lightness to it which suited movies like Bruce Brown’s fun documentary On Any Sunday (1971) and Richard Rush’s deliciously deceptive The Stuntman (1980) very well.

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Brannigan is a misfire. At that point in his life Wayne could not help but bring his iconic status with him into every role he played. He was perfectly cast in True Grit (1969) as the grizzled man with a reputation. Even the later day westerns set him up to play off that storied history. Plainly put this was not a good script. His other modern day detective film McQ (1974) was poorly received at the theaters. Director Hickox’s best film may have been Theatre of Blood (1973) a dark comedy with Vincent Price. This wasn’t a fair gunfight. Brannigan was down even before its gun was out of his holster. The Duke had become a legend who deserved much better than this. However we’d do well to remember though that John Wayne was an actor who was used to working a lot. He’s entitled to a few duds. There are more than plenty of good to great John Wayne pictures to make up for this one.

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Video – 2.35:1
This film looks okay. Some of the shots have a softness to them that appears inherent in the way it was shot. It has a light overlit quality that feels very much in keeping with the way hour long TV cop and detective shows were shot then. It plays fine on a TV screen.

Audio – 1.0 DTS-HD master with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is clear although there are some scenes that sound like they were dubbed afterwards that have a odd quality to them. They do not feel as though they are properly a part of the film. That’s down to way it was originally recorded and mixed. The score, even though it does not appear to be a good fit for the film to me sounds fine. There was even a short guitar arpeggio used early on that felt very reminiscent of one of the piano riffs found in a spaghetti western.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, Commentary with Actress Judy Geeson and Film Historian Nick Redman, Judy Geeson’s “Behind the Scenes” Home Movie Footage Trailer, Liner notes by Julie Kirgo

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Fair

Motel Hell (1980) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

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Stars – Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Wolfman Jack, John Ratzenberger, Nina Axelrod and Nancy Parsons.
Director – Kevin Connor

Released by Shout / Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Motel Hell came out amidst a slew of slashers and predictable horror films. The idea of a backwoods farmer butchering the clientele of his hotel and using them as the ingredients in his famous meats was not quite as original the producers would have you believe. A few blocks from the movie theaters where the film opened in New York City Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou belted out the story of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street nightly at the Uris Theatre. Sweeney the barber slit the throats of his customers while Mrs. Lovett baked them into the pies for sale at her shop. They were very popular. Still a horror comedy is good bet when most of the competition is serving up an endless stream of teens being stalked by various masked and troubled villains. It is a very difficult task to get that tone right. Two very dark comedies with plenty of horrific elements that got it right were Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). There were cheap films but they had a group of actors that brought a lot to the roles and had fun with it. Jack Nicholson as the masochistic dental patient, Dick Miller as the beatnik artist, Jonathan Haze as Seymor the creator of the man eating plant, Jackie Joseph as his devoted girlfriend and Mel Welles as Mushnick.
This one has Rory Calhoun and that’s about it.

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Rory Calhoun had not been in a film for long enough that the odds were strong that most of the 1980 audience had no idea who he was. He’d been in all kinds of B cowboy films, thrillers and sword and sandal epics. Today he is remembered for Night of the Lepus (1972) about killer rabbits and Motel Hell. He’s got a very natural easy going style that fits the humble murderous farmer Vincent. He pays the part low key, affable and straight. It works. Much of the rest of the cast is just not very good. The only ones that seems to give it a go are the swingers who come to the hotel because they think it is a rendezvous for a night of sexual hi-jinks and shenanigans. Director Kevin Connor’s previous efforts are notably The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and At the Earth’s Core (1976) both with Doug McClure.

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The basic premise is that Farmer Vincent and his sister played by Nancy Parsons (Porkys) run a motel that is well off the beaten path. They slit the resident’s throats and plant them in a garden until they are ripe enough to be made in to Vincent’s famous meats. The sight of all these heads sticking up out of their garden is pretty strange. All they can do is make gurgling noises. They talk to them and feed them, treating them better than most livestock, so they say. The often repeated motto of the brother and sister is, “ It takes all kinds of critters…to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters” Vincent saves Terri a girl from a car wreck. Both she and the very stupid local sheriff take a liking to her but she likes Vincent. They get the local TV minister played by Wolfman Jack to agree to marry them. Then things go bad and there is a chainsaw fight at the end. For a film that eschews major gore effects the ending is a humdinger. One has to wonder though why Farmer Vincent would have to don the head of a huge pig for the fight? The pig’s face, the farmer’s overalls and the chainsaw make for quite an image.

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Rory Calhoun turns in a very appealing performance. He is likeable enough to get you through the film. There are a couple of scares but not enough for it to work as any kind of effective horror film. It really sets itself up as a campy kitschy comedy. For me though the humor just doesn’t come off. This became popular as a VHS rental and later gained a following on cable TV. There is a nice vintage film clip of The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) that the Sheriff and Terri watch through binoculars on a date. He thinks it’s a date but she slaps him when he gets too fresh. The one thing that did crack me up was the vanload of punk rockers called Ivan and the Terribles. Ivan has the most ridiculous fake beard attached to him. When he gets planted in the garden along with the phony beard it’s a funny sight. The film has quite a lot of fans and there is no doubt that there is a target age that will find this a nice nostalgic thrill.

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Video – 1.85:1
The film looks okay. Detail is alright but much of it feels too muted. There are instances of black crush. Too many times in the darker scenes we loose detail and information to the murky and indistinct black levels. However farmer Vincent drives a super bright canary yellow tractor and candy apple red truck. The colors on his brand new looking equipment jump off the screen. There are times during the more well lit close ups and medium shots that look better. This film look okay but this is not a stand out treatment.

Audio – DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo
Dialogue is clear. We can hear the gurgles of the planted victims just fine. Music and effects are okay but again nothing stands out as particularly sharp or well done. It feels like you are listening to it on a regular TV broadcast. The stereo mix is not very robust.

Extras – New Commentary with director Kevin Connor New It Takes All Kinds: The Making of MOTEL HELL, New Shooting Old School with cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth,  Another Head on the Chopping Block: An interview with actor Paul Linke,  From Glamour to Gore: An interview with actress Rosanne Katon, Ida, Be Thy Name: A look back at MOTEL HELL’s frightful female protagonist Ida Smith, Trailer, Photo Galleries – DVD edition also included.

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Fair

Violent Saturday (1955) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

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Stars – Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Stephen McNally, Virginia Leith, Tommy Noonan, Lee Marvin, Margaret Hayes, J. Carrol Naish, Sylvia Sidney, Ernest Borgnine
Director – Richard Fleischer.

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Film Noir has combined with other genres, most notably westerns to produce some terrific pictures. When you watch a lot of Noirs you have to be careful that you don’t unwittingly get led down a dark alley to be left with some sappy melodrama masquerading as a noir. Normally too much melodrama in the mix can be the kiss of death. The fact that this is a color movie and a tremendous looking one done in Cinemascope may be enough to put classic Noir fans off the scent. But please don’t let that dissuade you; this one gets it right.

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This film is set in a bucolic Arizona mining town that exudes the kind of Americana charm found in Normal Rockwell magazine covers. The landscaping with mountain ranges in the distance behind the stately homes is gorgeous. When we first see Victor Mature (After The Fox) he looks like his tan was painted on. He wears it well and with him running a cooper mine forged of the rugged mountains it works. The colors are bright and painterly with a slightly bolder than life quality. A trio of hardened bank robbers come into town pretending to be traveling salesmen. As they case the local bank with its poorly guarded vaults and plot their heist we get a peek behind the town’s veneer.

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Victor Mature’s son gets into a fight with a school mate. He thinks his father is a coward because he did not fight in the war. No matter what dad says it doesn’t wash. The man who manages the mines is an alcoholic with a philandering wife. The bank manager delights in sending a foreclosure notice to the librarian. But not as much as he delights in following the beautiful nurse in town. He even takes his dog for late night walks so he can peep at her window as she undresses for bed. The librarian steels a pocket book at the library and pockets the cash. When she sneaks out at night to dispose of the empty pocketbook in the trash she sees the perverted manager spying on the nurse. He sees her but before he can make good on his threat of turning her in she blackmails him with exposure. During this tour of small town dirty laundry the three robbers are getting ready to make their move on a Saturday afternoon. Their plan is to come in when the vault opens for the last time before the bank, and the vault close up for the weekend.

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There are some great actors in this one. Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch) sports a beard to play an Amish farmer. He is very polite and says “I thank thee” a lot. Syliva Sydney (Dead End) brings a sense of pathos to her role as the librarian driven to blackmail. Of the three robbers one stands out. He is mostly quiet pacing around and fiddling with his Benzedrine inhaler until his first revealing scene on a sunny street. Lee Marvin drops his nose inhaler and when this kid who looks like Opie from The Andy Griffith Show bends down to pick it up for him, Marvin pins the kid’s hand to the pavement with his shoe. He lets go after a moment, wipes the inhaler off with his handkerchief and then takes a quick snort. Later he worries that one of the other guys in the crew is mean. Marvin could play impending doom so well. He’s often referred to as a force of nature and that description fits well here.

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Is this a tough crime film supported by a very tawdry look at the people in the town that will be robbed? Or is this a melodrama centered around neurotic people whose lives get thrown from the frying pan into the fire by the brazen act of robbery on that one day There is a moment when the Film Noir elements run head on into the melodrama and it smacks like a fist. The librarian is at the bank teller’s window to deposit the money she stole. This is right when the bank robbery starts. Lee Marvin goes to grab it and she resists. She is indignant. She clamps her hand tight around the dollar bills. Her whole face screams, this is my money! Not only did she steal it but she had to blackmail the snide little bank manager that caught her ditching the pocketbook. This sordid tale of events put that cold hard cash in her hand and she is not letting go. Marvin slams her hard and grabs the money. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about her troubles. He is working and that is his. Done. The professional crook meets the sneaky librarian pocketbook thief and the librarian is down for the count.

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The film starts with Victor Mature as the dad looking too small in his son‘s eyes and then finishes with him earning his respect by becoming the hero, although a reluctant one. One of the most iconic images from the film is of the non violent Amish farmer Borgnine rising to action with a pitchfork his hand. Director Richard Fleisher had done many different kinds of films from Noirs like Armored Car Robbery (1950) and Narrow Margin (1952) to the Disney adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) when he came to this one. He handles the hybrid mix very well giving each genre its due. The last half hour when the robbery gets going is full of solid action and thrills. When I first saw this picture as a kid I had to wade through the melodrama to get to the action, now years later I can fully appreciate how well the combination of the two works. Plus the rich colorful Cinemascope landscape looks tremendous.

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Video – 2.55:1
This is the first double dip for Twilight Time. One of their first releases was a DVD of this title made from materials that were lacking. Many were not pleased with the non-anamorphic formatting. At the time a statement was issued saying that was better than not releasing it at all. Now it gets the full-on Blu-Ray treatment delivered in the original 2.55:1 and it looks fabulous. The colors have that stand out quality that is at once impressive and later feels more like a painter’s work than any kind of realistic photography. This redresses that initial release and goes more than the extra mile in terms of presentation. The Cinemascope compositions and color palate are gorgeous here. If there are any moments that get a bit too bogged down with the townspeople you can just enjoy the photography till Lee Marvin comes back.

Audio – 5.1 DTS HD
The 5.1 sound has some unexpected stereo imaging. There is a scene with Lee Marvin paces back and forth from left to right during a hotel room conversation. The sound follows him from stage left to stage right. The music and dialogue all sound fine here.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, Commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Trailer, Liner notes by Julie Kirgo

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Lake Placid (1999) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

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Stars – Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleason, Betty White
Director – Steve Miner

Released by Shout / Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Put simply this one gets it right. The term B Movie it doesn‘t really refer to the cheaper second half of the double feature as originally intended anymore. It’s become a way to describe the kind of genre picture that’s fun but a bit below the mainstream grade. However that off the grid or non-mainstream quality is a badge of honor. Avid cinema followers get the link between the low budget films that rose above their standing to become something special and the term today. The phrase has been usurped to mean any horror, thriller or crime film that is a bit of a guilty pleasure. The term still carries the sheen of that undiscovered gem, that diamond in the rough classification that makes it fun to turn friends onto. Like it or not that insider phrase has become a mainstream label and a way to market these kinds of films. It is much harder to craft one of these than it looks.  The ability to treat the subject seriously yet still mix in a sense of humor is not a recipe by the numbers. Most attempts at this fail. Does the humor have to be darker and a bit twisted? Is too much self-awareness of the genre a good thing or should it be ignored? Maybe there should be no comedy at all. It’s an idiosyncratic mix at best and when it works, it’s delicious. Lake Placid is one of the good ones. And while it’s not a B Movie in the strict sense, you’d be fine in calling it one. We know what you mean.

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Something large is in the waters of Lake Placid. Bridget Fonda plays a paleontologist who is sent away from her desk job in the in the big city to the rural wilds of Maine. She arrives like a fish out of water. Early on she is talking with the big local sheriff played by Brendan Gleason (Gangs of New York) . He can’t really take her. Bill Pullman (Independence Day) as the local Fish and Game warden joins in but doesn’t want her involved either. Just then a cute girl in short shorts and a too tight T shirts asks them for help. The two of them ignore Fonda and answer every little thing she ask as Fonda swats at the mosquitoes and curses them. It’s an amusing low brow bit but it tells us these are just guys and you can’t control nature. David Kelly’s script is simple but has a strong narrative with some great characters. As the hunt for this suspected giant crocodile progresses the party is joined by the rock star crocodile expert. This Hector guy is a mythology professor. He is rich, has plenty of toys like a helicopter and lots of tracking devices. He believes that the crocodiles are gods and he is horny as hell for any woman within his reach. Oliver Platt plays him as lovably obnoxious. He throws disco parties in his big tent for everyone. He gets on Sheriff Gleason’s nerves.

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The battles between the sheriff and the crocodile nut are lots of fun. They are wonderfully played by Gleason and Platt. These guys are perfectly cast and truly ratchet the film up a few healthy notches. The other casting choice that makes this film work so well was getting Stan Winston to create this hulking beast that surges out of the water with a ferocity that is terrifying. There is some CGI up there but when Winston unleashes his gigantic mechanical creature you can feel it! Thanks to director Steve Miner the scares work and the laughs come easily. And to his credit most of the laughs come from the character clashes between Gleason and Platt. They both handle it like pros. We can laugh with them but quickly transition to a thrilling effects scene with them fighting the crocodile. Pullman and Fonda are pretty much straight men for the show and we know they will fall in heavy like if not love. Betty White (Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls) has the somewhat clichéd role of the potty-mouthed old lady who is not to be trusted. She does very well with it. The locations are gorgeous. Whether we are sitting out on a huge lake or stuck in a dark lakeside forest the look of the film is tremendous.

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The story surges along as the small town crew try to get a hold of this monstrous beast. Every time Oliver Platt or the crocodile comes on screen the energy level soars. The action scenes work very well. Watching the beast tip people out of a boat and stalk them in the water is done with lots of suspense. There first times we see the creature volt out of the shallow water onto the land are grab the handles of your roller coaster shocks. This thing snatches a bear in its jaws and pulls it into the water. Lake Placid delivers on the scares, the action set pieces and gives us a great fun ride along the way.

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Video – 2.35:1
This is a fine presentation. Colors look natural and detail is good. Where the transfer really looks great is in the vast number of scenes that have a slightly darker shade to them. Cinematographer Daryn Okada has cast many of the scenes with a bit of shade or slight darkness to them. Much of the film takes place in outdoor lakeside locations. He takes full advantage of the shadows in the exterior foliage to give us a much more satisfying and textured image. The full on nighttime scenes excel with good black levels and nice definition. The bright daytime exteriors, especially on the lake are good but have a softness to them. In those scenes the colors get a bit pushy and the brightness can overwhelm some of the detail. Usually this is the other way around with the brighter scenes looking more detailed. Rather than focus on any shortcomings in the sunny scenes, I choose to celebrate the nice camera work done in the darker and shadier scenes which make up most of the film.

Audio – 5.1 DTS-HD and 2.0 DTS-HD tracks in English, Subtitles offered in English.
There is a good use of the surrounds in this one. The various sounds of the lake are given some space in the track. All dialogue is clear with music and effects nestled nicely in the mix. At appropriate times the sound ratchets up and the sub woofer joins in the fun. This is a very workable and fun track.

Extras – • The Making of LAKE PLACID featuring new interviews with director Steve Miner, actor Bill Pullman, director of photography Daryn Okada, editor Marshall Harvey, Production Designer John Willett, Effects supervisor Nick Marra and Puppeteer Toby Lindala • Vintage Featurette featuring interviews with actors Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Brendon Gleason, Bette White and director Steve Miner • Behind the Scenes Still Gallery • Animatronic Croc Test Footage • TV Spots • Theatrical Trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent