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Archive for September, 2014

The Dead 2 Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

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Stars – Joseph Millson, Anand Krishna Goyal, Coulsom Sujitabh, Madhu Rajesh
Directors – Howard J. Ford, Jonathan Ford

Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

There are some wonderful locations in this zombie flick and a few very clever sequences. However the exotic setting in India is filled with some over the top melodrama and poor acting, That and the many instances of shaky cam and chop-a-matic editing take this one down a few notches. Still there is an urgency to the plot that does serve to drive things even though it is kind of on the level of a Lifetime movie in many instances.

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Joseph Milson is the American hero in a foreign land. We first see him at work high atop a wind turbine. It’s just him and a group of these huge windmills in a desolate and arid landscape. That is one terrific looking shot! He calls his Indian girlfriend, learns she is pregnant and then finds out there is a zombie plague. His girl lives in the slums. How can he get to her before the whole place is overrun with flesh chomping zombies. On his instruction she waits for him at home with her father who hates him. Mom meanwhile is sick and slowly turning into one of the creatures. The film is basically Milson’s journey from the fields all the way back to the city to save his girl.

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Along the way he is trapped on a rooftop but straps on a powered hand glider and soars over the hordes below until the gas runs out. Chalk up another really neat looking sequence for the directing team of The Ford Brothers. Further on he hooks up with a young boy. They travel together looking a bit like the father son combo in The Road.  We’re being set up for their eventual separation which may or may not tug at your heartstrings. Milson then has to deal with a mother and her child who are trapped in their car with zombies approaching. He can’t get them out. This is almost too much for our hero. Eventually he makes it to the city and must find a way to get out of town with his girl and find that cute little kid again.

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Some of the zombie chomping is done pretty well, recalling the shoulder biting we first saw in Romero’s Dawn of The Dead. A few of the zombies have make-up although a lot of them just shuffle around, and at times they move faster. The plentiful landscape shots and horizon vistas look terrific. Much of the picture had a gorgeous quality to it. Unfortunately most of the action scenes are ruined for me with shaky cam, swoosh shots and a camera that swings around everywhere. These scenes are then cut with such rapid editing that it prevents one from discerning anything but a series of images. If that doesn’t bother you this is an enjoyable though melodramatic zombie film with some otherwise tremendous photography

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Video – 1.78:1
The film looks great. Colors and detail are all fine. This was shot by Jonathan Ford one of the brothers who co-directed the film. He has a good eye for pretty landscapes and takes full advantage of the colorful citiy. For me though he ruins much of the film with shaky cam and swoosh shots that flail the camera around. They are then cut with that ADD choppy editing style that effectively ruins every single action sequence. At those points you simply can not follow what it going on.

Audio – Dolby True HD 5.1 with subtitles offered in English SDH and Spanish
Dialogue is fine for the most part. There are a few times when people talk on cell phones that make it tough to understand the person on the other end of the call.

Extras – The Making of The Dead 2 featurette that includes an interview with the Ford brothers and some cat named Billy Chainsaw, Deleted scenes

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent , but beware shaky cam

Movie – Fair

The Killer Elite (1975) Noon Wine (1966) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

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Stars – James Robards, Per Oscarsson, Olivia de Havilland, Theodore Bikel, James Caan,
Robert Duvall, Burt Young, Bo Hopkins, Mako, Gig Young, Arthur Hill,
Director – Sam Peckinpah

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

A typical clash of expectations is in store for Sam Peckinpah fans – one that you wish would be better than it is and one that you never thought you’d be able to see that is just incredible. Peckinpah was capable of greatness and disappointment and you get both in this new release. However the chance to finally see Noon Wine is cause for celebration for followers of Peckinpah. Let me just make it abundantly clear that it was well worth the wait.

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Just imagine a cast with James Caan and Robert Duvall as rogue CIA agents fighting a team of Ninjas in San Francisco helmed by Sam Peckinpah. That was the hype on Peckinpah’s publicized return to form with a rip-roaring martial arts action film, The Killer Elite. Sam’s last film was Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia which did not exactly make anyone rich. He had at that point alienated most of the people who could okay a film in Hollywood. Through an apparent divine intervention he was given a shot at this one. Stirling Silliphant may have written the script for the acclaimed film, In the Heat of the Night (1968) but this one is pretty terrible. Silliphant had at one time studied with Bruce Lee. Perhaps that is why he was considered for this script. It does not fully exploit the expected martial artists vs. western mercenaries encounters one would have hoped for. It is also dull and plodding, not exactly the kind of material that would drive a blockbuster action vehicle. It was a disappointment the first time I saw it yet each time I see it I expect it to be better than it was. It never is.

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The film begins with Duvall and Caan showing a real chemistry after a job. Duvall is very engaging, lots of fun. A few moments later Duvall shoots his partner of many years in the kneecap effectively retiring him from the business. We spend the next half hour or more watching Caan go through arduous rehab. This section goes on entirely too long. He moves into an apartment with his attractive rehab nurse. There are scenes with Caan practicing some Karate in a dojo and on a rooftop that look very realistic. Caan shows a real flair for the moves. There are some bloated scenes with Gig Young and Arthur Hill as the aging behind the scenes handlers. Eventually Caan gets his moves back and accepts a job protecting Mako. The real reason he got the job was so he could get even with Duvall who has an assignment to kill the Asian client. But this is all a set up. Bo Hopkins is on board as a weapons expert that is so crazy no one will work with him, just like Peckinpah was then. Hopkins is great in the role though. The one action sequence in the whole film that works well is the siege on a building in the city that Caan and his crew must evacuate Mako and his people from. The editing is crisp and the blocking of the action is solid. More like this would have really improved the picture.

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The climatic fight on a huge freighter ship has a horde of poorly choreographed Ninjas being easily shot to pieces by Caan and his small team. At one point Burt Young grabs one of then, lifts him over his head and chucks him overboard. So much for the legendary skills of the deadly Ninja. There is a set piece battle with Mako and real life martial artist Tak Kubota engaging in a samurai sword duel with Ninja styled Katanas. The moves are lackluster and the whole scene on the boat is a let down.

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Duvall and Caan work so well together it’s a shame the script has so few scenes with them. In the extras we learn that Stirling Silliphant insisted on inserting his wife into the film as the daughter of actor Mako. Tiana Du Long wears long pigtail braids and is costumed just like Angela Mau Ying was in Enter The Dragon. She is even given a few leg movies that echo the famed “Deadly China Doll” but she is just not up to it. This film marked the last time that Peckinpah would work with his long time partner composer Jerry Feilding. Noon Wine on the other hand marked the first time they would work together.

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After Peckinpah came off of Major Dundee (1965) he was finished, as would happen repeatedly in his career. He was given a chance to direct an episode in a TV series called ABC Stage 67 by someone who believed in the man who directed the extremely well received Ride The High Country (1962). Sam adapted the short novel written by Katherine Anne Porter in 1937. The man could really write. Peckinpah’s script is economical yet has so much feel for people and what they truly need from each other. He works the theme of co-dependence into these characters well. Peckinpah knew pride and he weaves the worst side of into one of the characters like poison in his blood. To be sure Porter’s original work was very strong but adapting it to a one hour TV episode which was actually 51 minutes of screen time was a difficult task. Word came down that Miss Porter was very pleased with his script.

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The time is the 1890s, the tail end of the old West. Jason Robards tends a dairy farm which he tells us in a voice over is really not man’s work but he is stuck with it since his wife is now an invalid. He tells us it was she that she wanted it in the first place as he sits down to take a break. A large hulking man played by Per Oscarsson comes by. Helton is a Swedish guy looking for work. He wants a dollar a day but quickly takes Robards’ offer of seven dollars a month. He is a great worker and helps make the farm a success. Peckinpah uses montage to great effect here. Helton is quiet and plays his harmonicas at night. Robards has two sons. When the kids mess with Helton’s harmonicas, he gets really upset and shakes them. That little incident passes and life settles back to normal. Into this nice arrangement comes a man asking Robards if he has seen a big Swedish guy. This is a very dramatic and powerful tale. I’ll not spoil any of the developments.

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It was said that Robards thought this was his best role. He is so relaxed and affable here. We instantly like him and get a feel for what makes him tick. That closeness is used to a very dramatic effect. Peckinpah shoots close to him, letting us sit down with him at the dinner table and when he relaxes. Robards has a great smile that features well in several montages. Peckinpah clearly understands what makes this deceptively simple tale work so well. For a man whose reputation seems to spring solely from the extreme violence in his films this is yet another reminder of just how caring a man he could be. He worked with Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones here in the first of what would be many films together. Jerry Fielding’s musical contribution not only sets the time and the place, he compliments the emotions without over stating anything. He and Peckinpah were a great match.

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This TV show was thought to be long lost. Noon Wine was but a single episode of a long forgotten and not very successful TV series. Fans of Sam Peckinpah who have read his biographies and critical papers have heard what a wonderful piece this was. It figures strongly in how we see this guy. The macho-boozing cocaine fueled Peckinpah seems to get so much attention. Yet the man who could write very well and apparently had an ability to sit beside your soul found very few outlets for that side of his person. Maybe it didn’t fit his impression of himself. Maybe he thought it was a weakness. Maybe no one was all that interested in seeing anything from him that wasn‘t from the heroic Bloody Sam. Noon Wine plays very much to Peckinpah’s strong hand. After hearing about this one for so many long years to be able to finally catch up with it, and own it is a real treat. And how cool it is that Noon Wine lives up to that exalted reputation! It flows nicely to revisit the other work he did with Jason Robards, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) after seeing this one. Sam apparently had a real heart. Don’t let that get around lest you spoil his reputation.

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Video – Killer Elite – 2.35:1
This one looks okay to good. The darker scenes do not offer a great amount of detail often succumbing to a murky muddy look. There is a graininess that is pleasing in many of the brighter outdoor scenes. It is fine and entirely watchable but does not exhibit what you’d consider a strong picture.

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This was shot for TV and thought long lost. We are lucky to be able to see this one at all. It is not a strong visual but again it is entirely watchable. Any shortcomings are vastly eclipsed by the performances. Any weakness in the color, even in the montages is acceptable. The B/W publicity stills used for this review do not reflect the quality of the show which is in color.

Audio – Killer Elite – 1.0 DTS with subtitles offered in English SDH
Everyone is easily understood. The music and effects track are all mixed well. While there is nothing exemplary in the track, there are no problems of any note either.

Noon Wine – 1.0 DTS
From the moment this starts Jason Robards’ gentle voice takes a firm hold of us and never really lets go till the end. We can understand everyone fine in this simple one channel track that was intended for a single speaker smaller than an ashtray.

Extras – Killer Elite – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, trailer, commentary with film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman. Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite, Promoting The Killer Elite, TV Spots.
The interview with Bo Hopkins in the featurette is nicely revealing.

Noon Wine – Commentary with film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman

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

Blu-Ray -
Killer Elite – Good
Noon Wine – Thank you!

Movie -
Killer Elite – Fair
Noon Wine – Classic

The Dogs of War (1980) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

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Stars – Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Paul Freeman, Colin Blakely, JoBeth Williams
Director – John Irvin

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

By the dawn of the eighties spy thrillers dominated the best sellers list . Writers like Robert Ludlum, Trevanian and Frederick Forsyth wrote intricate plots that combined politics and espionage into rapid page turning action. These usually lengthy paperbacks were all over the place. Quite a few of them were made into movies. Frederick Forsyth ‘s The Day of the Jackal (1973) became a taut tale about the top ranked assassin in the world on an assignment to kill the president of France. The Odessa File (1974) featured Jon Voight battling a hidden group of ex-Nazis. Forsyth’s The Dogs of War came along later and featured a much more realistic and politically charged take on a group of modern day mercenaries working in Africa.

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There is a seriousness that becomes obvious from the start with this film. Though it begins with a tightly knit group of fighters on the tail end of an assignmen blasting their way out of dodge and escaping in a helicopter you can feel this is not just an action film. Once back stateside these fighters resume their lives in normal society. We get some brief looks at them as they sort of assimilate back into life’s more gentle rhythms. They miss it. It’s more complicated than just needing that adrenaline fix that amps everything up. It’s more than being able to control a situation with weapons and military tactics. Christopher Walken plays Jamie Shannon. This was early enough in his career that there were no signature monologues that became a staple of his later work. This was the Christopher Walken who was the weird kid brother in Annie Hall (1977). This was the actor that tuned heads and won an Academy award for Best Supporting actor for his work in The Deer Hunter (1979). He’s got an incredible style. He pays such attention to detail. He brings so much to the role that you can’t help but believe him. We see him with his doctor who rattles off a list of injuries, gun shot wounds, broken bones, exposures to viruses and all kinds of maladies. He makes light of it but that’s a hell of a track record.

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Jamie lives in a small apartment. You wonder how much he makes for this life-risking work. His marriage has failed. Jamie makes several doomed attempts to get back with his ex wife, JoBeth Williams. Her alcoholic father has condemned him. None of the guys have a home life that sits well with hem. They just don’t fit. After taking an undercover reconnaissance mission to see if the ruling General / Dictator of Zangaro can be overthrown things get tense. His cover as a photographer of exotic birds is challenged and he winds up beaten and thrown in jail by the local authorities. Finally back in the states Jamie is offered a job by the same businessman who sent him there to orchestrate a coup. They want to install a new leader who has singed off on mining rights to the businessman organizing the whole deal. All of this is set up with realistic locations and performances. A local TV crew Jamie meets in Zangaro is headed by Colin Blakely. He gives the part just the right mix of cynical depression fueled by too much alcohol. However he is not above capitalizing on his light friendship with Jamie when he smells a story. Everyone here has an angle and no one is to be trusted except for the small band of warriors and maybe one other.

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Director John Irvin gives us that well played middle act when the gang prepares for the assignment. It is endlessly entertaining to see each member of Jamie’s crew fulfill their tasks. Tom Berenger is the second to Jamie. Berenger who can play unhinged very well is tightly controlled here with a sheen of humor and bravado. He’s great but never upstages Walken. Berenger has a terrific scene where he attempts to negotiates a better deal on some highly illegal firearms and ammo. One of the stars of the film is the XM-18 projectile launcher. It evens gets it’s own mention in the credits. This weapon can fire a mix of grenades, rockets, gas bombs, flares, anti personnel charges and smoke bombs. They get loaded into a large round magazine to give the shooter a “mixed salad”. We see the sale of this baby and then Tom Berenger check it out by firing it off of a ship on the way to Africa. By the time they use it in the final scene you can’t wait to see what destruction this thing is capable of.

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Throughout the film things look real. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff is more well known for his work with The Red Shoes (1948) and The African Queen (1951) but action fans will remember him for directing Dark of the Sun (1968) with Rod Taylor, another mercenary tale set in Africa. Without a doubt you’ll get your fill of action scenes but this one works hard to play the circumstances and characters in a realistic way that pays off handsomely. This is exactly what they mean by a thinking man’s action film. Christopher Walken delivers an outstanding performance here, too. It should be noted that Twilight Time present this in both the regular US theatrical cut of 104 minutes and the International cut of 119 Minutes. I viewed the longer cut as I had not seen the film since its original release. The extra length seems to suit it well.

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Video – 1.85:1
This film looks fine. Colors are strong. Detail is good. There are occasional specks and bits of stuff on some frames particularly at the beginning and end of reels. The darker exterior scenes hold their own for the most part. The scenes on the boat at night look fine while some of the land based sequences during the attack get a little muddy here and there, though nothing to really bother you. There is enough grain on display throughout to give it a consistent look that film fans will appreciate.

Audio – 2.0 DTS-HD with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is clear. The sound track and effects are mixed effectively. Do not expect your sub woofer to get up and dance on this one though.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, trailer

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Don’t Blink DVD Review

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

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Stars – Mena Suvari, Brian Austin Green, Zack Ward, Joanne Kelly, David deLautour
Director – Travis Oates

Released by Vertical Entertainment

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

A group of ten attractive friends drive off for a weekend getaway to a remote mountain resort. When they get there the place is gorgeous. The cabins are all done in rich woods and exquisite taste. The surroundings by the lake are picture postcard prefect. The only thing is there is no one to check in with. After they search they find a breakfast made and a table set but nothing eaten. A bathtub is full of water but there is no one in it. People look like they have been there very recently but the place is deserted. Two of the group go off to look by the lake and make a startling revelation. There are no birds, no insects and no wildlife of any kind at all. They feel the animals have fled. Their cars have all run out of gas so they are stuck there.

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After a while they notice someone is missing. Their attempts to locate him come up scratch. Then after a bit another one of the party is seemingly misplaced, vanished into thin air. They begin to get worried. Should they leave or stay? How can they leave if none of the cars work? One by one people start to go missing. There is no bloodshed, no lurking killer or anything at all. They just are gone. It’s a recognizable set up but it does get you interested. The acting is good with a nice turn by Brian Austin Green from Beverly Hills, 90210. The photography is top notch. You really want to give this one a chance. As one of the characters grabs some cleaner from underneath the sink we see something scrawled on the inside of the cabinet, “Help me”.

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There are some particular types of mystery plots that come up again and again. The locked room, the person who disappeared, the Amnesia one, the innocent person framed for murder who has to escape the coppers to clear themselves. The set up with  several people trapped overnight in a mansion with them unexpectedly disappearing or murdered one by one is a classic one. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has been made into several films including Ten Little Indians.(1965). Right before the end there was a Who-Done-It minute with a time clock ticking away and a voice over urging you to see if you can guess the outcome. There is Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes version of it made into The House of Fear(1945). That one had a very ingenious ending. It’s a wicked grin of a conclusion that only Holmes could deduce. A real cult favorite is House on Haunted Hill (1959) with Vincent Price. All of these have a pay off at the ending. That pay off has to adhere to the conventions of the genre. Or if it chooses to break them it better be worth it. When you start watching a set up like this you can’t help but start to wonder, okay how it is one going to end.

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Just like clockwork the characters begin to disappear one by one. I liked the bloodless way this occurred. It was novel. At one point a guy and girl are standing in front of the refrigerator He opens the door to get something. It blocks her from our view as he keeps talking to her. When he closes it, she is gone. It freaks him out. Nicely done. As we near the end and get down to the very last of the original ten there are several over the top instances of bloodletting. They just don’t seem called for or in keeping with the original tone of the film. This was a slow chill, but someone had to go and rush things and hit us over the head. As their numbers fall drastically a guy and a girl sit opposite each other. Fearing that they will be taken away if they close their eyes they stare at each other forcing themselves not to blink. Interesting conceits like that are subverted by the introduction of guns and typically bloody deaths. Bad writing in the last act has done in many a good mystery. As we moved toward the end my expectations for a truly clever explanation for all of this began to wane. I won’t give anything away. Suffice to say I felt gypped.

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Video – 2.40:1
Colors are richly presented. Detail is readily apparent. The interiors of the cabins with all the woodwork look terrific.

Audio – 5.1 Digital Surround
All dialogue is clear. Music and effects are fine though the mix does not utilize the surrounds much. They did get the rights to use a bit of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High in the beginning though.

Extras – None

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

DVD – Excellent

Movie – Fair