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Archive for November, 2015

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

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Stars – Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin and Ving Rhames
Director – Christopher McQuarrie

Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Two hours and eleven minutes of fast fun; no question about it. This Mission Impossible bears some lovely tips of the hat to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock practically invented the romantic adventure thriller that reached its zenith with North by Northwest (1959). He also established much of the film grammar that directors readily draw from even today. Throw in a little fun shoe fetish and you’ve got an enjoyable stylish thrill ride that delivers as strongly as the last Mission Impossible outing, Ghost Protocol. The fifth adventure in the series begins with Tom Cruise literally running after a jet that is about to take off with a shipment of nerve gas that will most certainly fall into the wrong hands. Cruise hangs on as the plane takes off and barely gets on board after Simon Pegg manages to open the right door for him to enter. It’s a nice opening reminiscent of the pre-credit sequences that became one of the trademarks of the James Bond series.

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In fairly rapid order Cruise gets captured and is set free by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) just as he is about to be tortured by the Bone Doctor. Meanwhile back in the Senate CIA director Alec Baldwin has convinced them to shut down the lone wolf Impossible Missions Force. They are getting too cocky and he is convinced their success is just due to luck. Cruise and his loyal team are on their own the track down the evil Syndicate. This is a group of dangerous spies who have faked their deaths and now work in league. Kind of like SPECTRE. The plot is not that important. They basically follow on person to another trying to locate the leader of the Syndicate. Along the way Ilsa keeps turning up. She is clearly trying to kill or capture Cruise until she helps him at the last minute. We’ve seen the deep cover double agent bit before but that doesn’t take away from the rapport these two characters have throughout the film. Familiarity is not an issue at all. We are clearly shown just what kind of movie this will be right from the beginning. Director McQuarrie faithfully delivers the goods here.

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Rogue Nation gives us that amiable camaraderie between Cruise’s band of IMF members – Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg. Fun as they are the film is built on its series of powerful set pieces. There is a remarkable assassination attempt at the Vienna Opera House. It’s a spectacular location. The audience is huge and amongst them is the chancellor aka the target. Cruise follows a bad guy up through the maze of catwalks suspended high above the stage. The orchestra swells. We can see the mark on someone’s music sheet indicating a loud crescendo that will cover the killing. This is the same device that Alfred Hitchcock used so well in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). The centerpiece of the film gets back to the old Mission Impossible type assignments. They have to break into a heavily guarded data storage center to retrieve a file. In order for Simon Pegg to fool the various digital checkpoints someone will have to go deep within the core and swap out an identity recognition file with one that looks like Pegg. This core is only accessible by going down a huge whirlpool that leads to a completely submerged port. Once inside someone will have to grab the right connection while being spun around in circles over and over. All this has to be done while holding your breath for two minutes! The whole bit is very suspenseful. The water filled set is completely threatening.

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There is a killer motorcycle chase that allows Cruise to show off what looks like some real life motorcycling riding that gets integrated into the scene. Cycles and cars blast through the highway until only the high speed cycles are left to see it to the end. Right before this sequence we ride with Cruise and Pegg as their car careens around the streets.  The car crashes and Cruise picks up a motorcycle to join the chase. The problem is that Pegg is comic relief. He’s good at it, too. So we are having a laugh just as we are expected to throttle up for this balls to the wall action scene. It’s a bit of a whiplash. Usually the comedy goes after the chase. The only other note that rings false for me was the casting of Sean Harris as the leader of the supremely evil Syndicate. He’s just not all that much of a villainous presence. Those are minor quibbles in what is a terrifically entertaining fun ride.

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Cruise has managed to make one of these Mission Impossible films about every four or five years since 1996. The second one directed by John Woo had some outstanding action scenes. The last two though have nicely elevated the look and feel of the series. Yes the films center most assuredly around Cruise but he pulls it off. Rebecca Ferguson turns in a very nice performance as Ilsa. She plays alluring yet deadly in a believable fashion. She handles the action scenes well, too. You get exactly what you expect with this. Again for my money the last two have upped the ante nicely.

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Video – 1.85:1
This is a crisp and clean state of the art presentation. Slick as glass without a smudge on it. That kind of presentation perfectly suits this style of movie.

Audio – 7.1 Dolby Atmos, Dolby 5.1 in French, English, Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles offered in English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese
My system is not equipped with the Dolby Atmos support however it defaulted to a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that complete rocked the house. Not only was the dialogue clear but in many cases there was a bass support that gave a real movie theater like treatment to the voices. The musical soundtrack particularly when it was tied to an onscreen sources like the orchestra in the Vienna Opera House soared with plenty of muscle. Sound effects had that sub woofer rumble you expect. Every once in a while a setting had that immersive layer of sound effects that worked the rear surround speakers. This is exactly the kind of mix that surround systems were made for. If you have a nice rig at home, give it some gas and sit back and enjoy it. This is easily one of the best home soundscapes I have heard all year.

Extras – Commentary by Tom Cruise and director/screenwriter, Lighting the Fuse, Cruise Control, Heroes, Cruising Altitude, Mission: Immersible, Sand Theft Auto,
The Missions Continue. A DVD and digital copy download are also included. There was also an offer to get a digital copy of one of the previous Mission Impossible movies.

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

Blu-Ray- Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) Blu-Ray Review

Friday, November 27th, 2015

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Stars – Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniel
Director – Joseph Green

Released by Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If a title like this can be released on Blu-Ray what does that say to the articles that announce the coming death of physical media? Sure it’s a niche market, but who would have ever thought this one would get a well done presentation on Blu-Ray. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is one of the all time classics of bad science fiction, sleaze, depravity and cheap glory. It is also one of the earliest films to bring such a close-up display of gore to the screen. It came out a year before Hershell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Fest (1963) but these films are kissin’ cousins. There is no doubt that this is a low budget film. Sets are put together on the fly with as little as possible. The film opens with father and son surgeons operating so there is a table, some medical instruments and a wall behind them with some of that pale looking tile you always see on hospital walls. The patient dies but the son Bill brings him back by operating on his brain with some experimental techniques. We get to see him poking around in there too.

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Dad goes off to a convention. Bill and Jan his girlfriend drive off to their isolated cabin. On the way they get into a car accident. Bill is thrown from the car but he’s okay. He reaches through a broken window and retrieves her severed head. Back at his laboratory downstairs in the cabin he saves her head. There she sits in a pan on a table with medical tubes and things all around her. As she comes to consciousness Bill runs off to look for a suitable body to stick her head on. How would you feel if your boyfriend or girlfriend stuck your head in a tray while they went off looking for a hot body. You bet she’s pissed.

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Not only do we get this head on a tray but it just won’t shut up either. She berates the assistant left in the lab with her. There is a horrible victim of the doctor’s past experiments locked behind a flimsy closet door. The assistant feeds the thing through a slot. Jan begins to telepathically work on this monster. We then follow Bill as he goes to strip clubs searching for the right body. He visits a model who poses for a group of slavering guys with their cameras. These creepy shutterbugs practically drool on the floor. One of the extras in this release gives you the topless version of this scene. Meanwhile back at the lab Jan mind controls the thing behind the door to attack that assistant. The poor guy gets him arm literally torn off. He staggers up the stairway smearing a huge swath of blood on the wall. Blood is everywhere when Bill comes home but he’s got a body with him and is hell bent on going through with his experiment. Trouble and more blood ensues. There is a great line uttered by Jan over a black screen just before the credits roll.

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The film was made in 1959 but no distributor was found until AIP picked it up in 1962. Scenes were trimmed for the theatrical run. Subsequent showings on late night TV also left out those scenes. This version has all the goodies put back in. This is a wacky delight.  I get a kick out of the clever way they shot around the head on the table without giving it away. When we see Jan’s face it is always from table height or above. Director Green uses a reverse angle a few times and there is nothing underneath the table at all. Isn’t Jan sitting underneath it with her head sticking up through a hole? Clearly it is a mannequin head covered in bandages that we only see from the back. It works for this kind of picture. You get plenty of bloodshed and gore with the brain surgery and limb removal. There is a parade of scantily clad women on display for Bill to choose from for Jan’s new body. The whole thing is so crazy yet you have to see what happens to Jan’s head in the pan.

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Video – 1.66:1
“High Definition (1080p) transfer from the negative – restored to its uncut version”
This is an excellent looking presentation. There is good clarity and strong detail throughout. There are a few very minor instances of damage.

Audio – DTS-HD Master Mono with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is clear. The eerie musical track sounds great, too.

Extras – Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode – “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” (in Standard Definition), Commentary with film historian and author Steve Haberman and writer Tony Sasso, Alternate scene from the international cut, Theatrical trailer, Still gallery.

The MST3K episode is from the later part of the series with Mike Nelson.

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

Blu-Ray- Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent (for this kind of thing)

Remo Williams The Adventure Begins (1985) DVD Review

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

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Stars – Fred Ward, Joel Gray, Wilford Brimley, Kate Milgrew
Director – Guy Hamilton

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Remo Williams The Adventure Begins was supposed to be the start of a new film franchise based on the Destroyer paperback action novels. Guy Hamilton who had directed Goldfinger was brought in to run the show.  Despite exemplary work from Joel Gray and some spectacular action set pieces the film never quite found an audience on its initial release. It was long at two hours. The tone of the film which was a balance between action, adventure, and tongue in cheek comedy missed for many viewers. The central initiative of the film’s billionaire bad guy was to sell cheap faulty weapons to the army. It’s just not much of a scheme to get worried about. The poster and advertising campaign were not much either. However enough people liked this to keep talking it up and over the years that it has rightfully earned a strong cult status. There is an awful lot to like here. If you’ve not seen it, it is more than worth a shot. It you know the film you’ve be jazzed at this new release that is finally in the correct aspect ratio.

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The film starts with a knock down drag out brutal fight scene on the docks of New York City. A policeman gets his ass kicked by three guys and is sent into the river to drown in his car. He wakes up in a hospital. His death has been faked. Someone from the CURE agency tells him all will be fine. He further tells him his name has been changed and that a great deal of care has gone into it. The man absently reads from the manufacturer’s stamp on a bed pan telling him his new name is Remo Williams. We next spend a good deal of time in a series of training sequences with Joel Gray as Chiun an elderly Korean martial arts expert putting Remo through his paces. The make up on Grey is fantastic. It was nominated for an Academy Award. Lest we take it too seriously Chiun shows off early on how he is able to dodge bullets. He has Remo running along high building ledges and through a make-shift obstacle course in Chiun’s apartment while the old guy watches soap operas. Chiun is full of snide remarks, too. “ Your reflexes are pitiful! The seasons move faster.” There is an outrageous bit with Remo hanging from the Wonder Wheel ride in Coney Island. The Ferris Wheel revolves with Remo having to evade the other swinging cars as he hangs on. This scene ends very sweetly with Chiun proving his skill at one of the side show games.

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While the central villain is not much himself he does have his share of worthwhile henchmen.  One has a diamond tooth that Remo uses to cut his way out of a trap with. Several set pieces are real stand outs here. They have the kind of flavor that you’d see in Hong Kong films made in their golden era. The stunt work is fabulous! In one set up Remo has to sneak into a building but he is followed by a trio of dogs. He runs up a fire escape style ladder daring the dogs to follow him. Two leap up grabbing the lowest rung in their teeth. Their weight pulls it down as the third actually climbs up the ladder after Remo. The fight scene on The Stature of Liberty is a classic. It was shot when the lady was undergoing a restoration so there is scaffolding everywhere. A few bad guy construction workers chase Remo all around forcing him to cling desperately to hanging ropes and bounce off the temporary scaffolding. It is a true work of art with some harrowing stunts.

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There is a lot of mayhem that allows Remo and Chiun to show off their fantastic martial arts skills. They exhibit amazing balance and the outrageous ability to walk on water. These are played to induce the maximum wow factor. It’s easy to sit back and grin with your jaw hanging open as they display these wild feats. Kate Milgrew is on hand as a feisty military type who suspects trouble is brewwing. Wilfred Brimley runs a huge super computer with his usual charm. The crux of the film though is the relationship between Remo and Chiun. Joel Gray shines in this role. He’s like an obnoxious but lovable Yoda to Fred Ward’s working class James Bond. The locations in New York form the eighties are fun to look at, especially the bits done in Coney Island.

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No doubt Remo Williams is quirky but it has its considerable charms. The stunt driven action scenes will appeal to Jackie Chan fans and lovers of the outrageous. Remo belongs on that shelf right next to his second cousin Buckaroo Banzai. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension came out the year before. It too could have made a fun wacky franchise but failed to find its true audience till years later. Offbeat films like this have a loyal core of fans. Take a break from the normal mainstream action fare and give Remo a shot one night. He and Chiun will give you a great evening out. Maybe they’ll take you to Coney Island and you’ll win a prize, too.

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Video – 1.85:1
Previously this film was only available in a pan and scan full frame version from MGM. Fans of the film will be pleased to finally have this proper wide screen Anamorphic release from Kino Classics. Colors are all fine. Facial tones read normal. Everything looks particularly strong in the outside daylight scenes. In the dark interiors there are instances where we lose detail in the darker parts of the frame. There is quite a bit of grain which looks normal although it descends into a black crush on occasion in some areas. Overall this is a terrific transfer and a very welcome release for this film.

Audio – Dolby Digital Stereo with subtitles offered in English
Dialogue comes through fine. Sound effects are robust. The musical scores has plenty of heroic flourishes and suspenseful cues to support the film. There are some songs from the eighties that will either sound dated or pleasing depending on your taste. The theme song is by Tommy Shaw from Styx.

Extras – Trailers

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

DVD – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Scorpio (1973) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

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Stars – Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Alain Delon,
Director – Michael Winner

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

In the post Watergate years in the early seventies Hollywood began to favor conspiracy stories. This type of film elevated the spy movie by taking things a bit more seriously. One only had to look to TV and the newspapers to see real life politics and espionage had merged in the headlines to breed all kinds of conspiracy theories. Burt Lancaster was a great choice to star in one of these. He had done his share of fun action films but was also capable of delivering a stronger darker shade on screen in serious roles. Was it a coincidence that he had two of these in the same year. Executive Action took on the Kennedy assassination with a script by Dalton Trumbo. However Michael Winner’s conspiracy thriller with Burt opened earlier that year. Neither was particularly good though.

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Lancaster is an older CIA agent. His protégé Alain Delon has been tasked with taking him out. Didn’t director Winner have a similar story line in his last picture with Jan-Michael Vincent hired to take out his mentor Charles Bronson in The Mechanic? Delon seems reluctant. Another hit squad kills Lancaster’s wife. With nothing left to loose he looks up an old friend Paul Scofield who is with the Russians. There is this nice sense of camaraderie between them. Ah the old days when spys were spys and you knew who you could really trust. What hurts this film is the lack of action and pace. There’s some movement in the beginning but it soon settles into scene after scene of people chatting away in authentic European locations. The locations looks good. They are even shot with a muted tone to give it a more realistic feel. However this script is not on the level of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or for that matter any of the earlier Michael Caine Harry Palmer films The Ipcress File and Funeral In Berlin. The other thing that really throws the sequences off is the fact that most of them are dubbed. We do not get to hear these great actors, including Paul Scofield (A Man for all Seasons) interact in sync sound. While dubbing was quite the norm in many countries its use here takes us right out of the scenes. The sound effects are not rendered much better. Jerry Fielding’s score is the only thing that leaps off the soundtrack with any real gusto.

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There is one set piece about two thirds of the way in that stands out. It’s a gunfight set at a construction site. There is scaffolding hanging all over the place. Steel rods stick out from concrete. Floor landings are not finished. Stairways and ladders lead up and down. It feels very much like the kind of location that would become so common in the Hong Kong gangster films in the mid eighties. The place looks like a stuntman’s dream. Big kudos to the location scout. Burt Lancaster is seen in close up quite a lot. He’s doing most, if not all of his own stunts here. At one point he reaches up from a handhold on the floor above him and just vaults himself up in one smooth athletic move. Burt was a real life circus acrobat in his younger years and that skill shows up in his films from time to time. The confrontations and revelations at the end do not carry a lot of impact. Once we see Burt hunt down the man responsible for his wife’s death our emotional investment is spent. Lancaster, Delon and Scofield all turn in good work. The story falls short and frankly the direction is lackluster. Michael Winner made two of the best Charles Bronson films in Death Wish and The Mechanic. I also enjoyed some of his trashy work for Canon in later years. However this one, like several of his, misses the mark.

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Video – 1.85:1
The transfer looks fine. Some of the coloring and texture is muted on purpose.

Audio – 1.0 DTS-HD MA with subtitles offered in English SDH
The track and mix on this one is disappointing. It certainly seems to be no fault of the transfer. Many scenes feature dubbed actor’s voices. The Foley sound effects added in after the fact have a hollow false sound throughout. Fielding’s score jumps in front and center. It serves the music well. That’s his style. The overall mix though is just poor.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score and effects track, Commentary with
with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, Original theatrical trailer

Even if you do not play the whole commentary track be sure to advance to the gun fight scene at the construction site to hear a great story recounted by Lem Dobbs. It’s an expletive laced quarrel between Lancaster and Winner that is not to be missed.

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Fair