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Archive for December, 2016

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

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Stars – William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Turturro, John Pankow
Director – William Friedkin

Released by Shout Select

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This one sits rightfully alongside The Exorcist, The French Connection and Sorcerer as the best of director William Friedkin’s work. To Live and Die in L.A. is a riveting and outstanding crime thriller. It’s based on a book by former Secret Service agent Gerald Peteivich. Peteivich belongs to a small group of modern crime writers whose work has a striking realism to them. Along with guys like Eugene Izzi and George V. Higgins (Friends of Eddie Coyle, Cogan’s Trade which became the film Killing Them Softly) they brought hard boiled to a scorching level. Characters behaved like you’d imagine their real life counter parts would. And that goes for the detectives and cops as well as the bad guys. While Elmore Leonard regularly and justifiably lit up the best seller lists with his cleverly plotted books filled with colorful low life criminals these other guys developed a strong following among hard core mystery and crime readers. You’d expect to see , “Not For The Faint Hearted” emblazoned across the front of these books as a caution. That’s where this story came from. Peteivich and Friedkin collaborated on the screenplay.

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The film opens as we look through the early morning haze over Los Angeles. It’s got a worn out beauty to it. The lead character played by William Petersen is a detective that plays fast and loose with morality and safety. Yet he lives and dies by a code that is as strict and clear as anything in the picture. Trust is a big issue. His partner of many years is killed hours before his retirement. Willem Dafoe plays the killer. He’s a very creepy individual who makes counterfeit cash. There is a stunning sequence with Dafoe as he carefully prepares his plates for making counterfeit bills.  He exhales across some kind of metal film and we see the image he breathes life into. Later he tosses the bills into a tumble dryer with lots of plastic poker chips to give it just the right amount of wear and tear.  Dafoe moves with a Zen like precision.  He paints from his soul and then sets the painting on fire. He’s got a very sexy, slinky girlfriend. This is not your typical villain.  Petersen gets a new partner in John Pankow. So what he needs to know right quick is whether he can trust this new guy to the extent that he needs to in order to work at the speed he is comfortable with. Can they both get Dafoe to trust them as they try to snare him. Petersen also plays out a string of hope with a lady on parole. He takes what he needs from her in every way he can.

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The film moves quickly. Conversations seem natural and believable. Characters say one thing yet we know they are working an angle. Much of the dialogue was improvised so it has a fresh quality to it. However many scenes have a breath taking look to them. Compositions and colors are purposeful and compelling. For whatever reason Friedkin likes his films to look as if they were made on the edge.  Every action scene is pushed and taken past the limit you’d expect. Everyone knows this is the guy that did that spectacular car chase in The French Connection. He sets up scenes as if he wants to blow that expectation out of the water. There is a level of danger and risk taking that people who have worked with him talk about. When you watch a film like this one the action scenes crackle with an electricity. That chase scene in the LAX airport rocks. Petersen leaps up onto the escalator and surges along like an elevated subway car closing in on John Turturro. The set piece on the highway with cars and trucks is a heart stopper. As powerful as those scenes are we get an equal amount of intensity from the performances. Petersen and Dafoe are perfectly cast. They seem to give this picture everything they’ve got. Friedkin either knows how to push all the right buttons with his actors or to give them enough room to do their thing.

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To Live and Die in L.A. tells a sordid tale of corruption and balls to the wall law enforcement. The central bad guy, the one the lead character will seemingly do anything to get has so many twisted traits in his character that it feels justified. As an action film this totally satisfies. The characters are drawn deep and unusual. As we follow Willem Dafoe and William Petersen we never know quite where they will go. Friedkin keeps us on edge. It’s a helluva picture and one that deserves all the praise you wanna heap on it.

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Video – 1.85:1
The previous Blu-Ray that was put out by MGM had an excellent looking picture. This one is equally great. Shout’s version is a bit brighter in scenes. Certain colors come across stronger. Overall the detail feels sharper. That’s not to say the older one was soft at all, just that this one brings out the detail more by virtue of an enhanced brightness.  The uptick in brightness and detail is very obvious. I must admit though that I was a bit nervous when I read that Friedkin had approved this new 4K scanned transfer. He has been know to meddle with the look of his films to their detriment as he did with The French Connection. This time though the picture is great.

Audio – DTS-HD Master 5.1 , DTS-HD Master 2.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
This is to my ear the same rock’em, sock’em soundtrack that graced the previous edition. Dialogue is easy to follow. Effects hit you in the gut. Wang Chung’s music takes you back to  the eighties and fits the film very well.

Extras – NEW 4K Scan Of The Negative Supervised And Approved By William Friedkin NEW Taking A Chance – An Interview With William Petersen NEW Wrong Way: The Stunts Of To Live And Die In L.A. – An Interview With Stunt Coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker NEW So In Phase: Scoring To Live And Die In L.A. – An Interview With The Band Wang Chung (Jack Hues And Nick Feldman) NEW Renaissance Woman In L.A. – An Interview With Actress Debra Feuer NEW Doctor For A Day – An Interview With Actor Dwier Brown Audio Commentary With Director William Friedkin Deleted Scene And Alternate Ending Counterfeit World: The Making Of To Live And Die In L.A. Still Gallery Theatrical Trailer Radio Spot

The new interview with actor William Petersen is terrific. He has good recall from his casting in the film to various scenes that they shot. He paints a clear picture of what working on that set was like. He clearly liked working with Friedkin.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960) Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

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Stars – Kerwin Matthews, June Thorburn, Jo Morrow, Basil Sydney, Sherry Alberoni
Director – Jack Sher

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

All of the Ray Harryhausen films have their own special brand of magic. This one does not have a central creature like Beast From 20,00 Fathoms or Twenty Million Miles to Earth. It does not feature a special quest like the Sinbad films that leads the hero through encounters with fantastic beasts. A doctor named Gulliver is the central character here. Based on Jonathan Swift’s satire the tale set in the seventeen hundreds. Gulliver and his finacee Elizabeth are swept into two fantastic worlds. In the first Gulliver is the size of giant compared to the tiny population of Lillyput. The king and his full of themselves advisers immediately recognize what an aide he would be in their war with the neighbors across the waters. Gulliver comes up with a non violent solution to the war. The king is not happy about this forcing Gulliver and his bride to be to escape. In the next kingdom of Brobdingnag Gulliver and Elizabeth are tiny people the size of little dolls while the people tower above them like giants.

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A sweet little girl name Glumdalclitch finds and cares for them. She sets up house for them in a cute honeymoon castle. This time one of the king’s trusted ministers accuses Gulliver of witchcraft. The following two sequences are the ones that really stand out for me every time I see this one. The decidedly evil minister has two bowls of altered water that will turn the guilty party blue after they are dipped in them. With Gulliver’s scientific training he fixes the bowls to render him red. The shots of Gulliver dipping himself in these pools are very well done. Convinced that Gulliver really is a witch by this minister the king sets Gulliver down on a table with a baby alligator. Harryhausen gets to show off his stop motion tricks here with the vicious jaw snapping creature. Gulliver uses a lady’s broach as a shield and the pin from a gift box as a sword.

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The bulk of the special effects in the film are manipulations of the size of Gulliver and others in the same frame. Interesting as they are it falls to Kerwin Matthews as the lead to carry the film which he does well. He displays that same ability as he did in his Sinbad film to play to invisible actions in the frame which will be added later by Ray and the effects team. Since this is more of a juvenile movie the role of the young girl who finds the tiny Gulliver and Elizabeth has to draw the kids into the film. Sherry Alberoni as Glumdalclitch comes off as very natural easily inviting the audience along for the show.

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Video – 1.66:1 and 1.78:1
The bright costumes really benefit from the HD treatment. Reds, blues and yellows all jump out nicely. This is a period piece full of excessively colorful dresses and outfits. Detail gets a nice boost, too. With the added clarity one does get to see the obvious differences in the process shots. That just comes with it, however you do get to marvel at the exquisite detail to be found in Harryahusen’s animated alligator. The scales and skin texture are gorgeous to look at. There will be those that say you can see too much of the magician’s tricks with the Blu-Ray upgrade. I’ll have to include myself with the large group of fans who love that look-see and fully appreciate all the nuances inherent in the process. The models and miniature work totally captivate me when I can revel in such strong detail.

Audio – DTS HD MA 1.0 in English with subtitles offered in English SDH
Sound is fine. Bernard Herrmann turns in another fun score that matches this kind of fantasy film beautifully.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, Commentary by Film Historians Randall Cook, C. Courtney Joyner, and Steven C. Smith, The Making of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, The Harryhausen Chronicles, This Is Dynamation!, Original theatrical trailer

When Harryahusen’s films began to come out in DVD Columbia included two featurettes on every one of them. This is Dynamation is a fun promotional piece for Ray’s magical process. The Haryhausen Chronicles is outstanding, offering a great look at how Ray used his model making and stop motion skills. It’s also got the cute story of how he just had to cut up one of his mom’s coats to get the fur for one of his creatures he made as a kid.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

The Bullet Train (1975) Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

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Stars – Shinichi Chiba, Kei Yamamoto, Raita Ryu, Tetsuro Tamba, Ken Utsui, Ken Takakura, Akira Oda
Director – Junyo Sato

Released by Twilight Time This edition is region A only.  Original Japanese title – Shinkansen Daibakuha
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com and Twilighttimemovies.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Prior to this release if you wanted to see the Japanese film The Bullet Train, at least here in the states you were stuck with the cut down version that would occasionally show up on TV or a series of poor looking VHS and DVD editions. The original version ran over two and half hours long. The US version ran just under two hours. Basically the entire back story of the three would be criminals is eliminated. The film works much better with it in. The idea was to emulate some of the bigger American block buster films. It is easy to see that the story is kind of like Airport (1970) on a train. We have a cross section of types aboard. The cast is peppered with big stars. There is a bomb on board. The plot flips from the efforts to save the passengers to the melodramatic reactions of those in danger. You’ve got the classic confrontation between the authorities and the more blue collar heroes at the airport or on the train. The George Kennedy role from Airport is now played by martial arts action star Sonny Chiba. Only here he is billed as Shinichi Chiba and he performs no fight scenes. He does a great job as the stuck in a pressure cooker driver of the train. The biggest difference though is that the bomb on the train will go off if the train’s speed goes less than 80 mph. The is a ransom demanded.

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The three guys that planted the bomb are drawn from a very carefully selected group of disadvantaged fellows. The leader has lost his small business and as a result his wife and child. Another is a former student activist. The last one has traveled from the rural country to try to make a go of it in the big city. They have all failed in one way or another and are sticking it to the government to pay out. This gives the film a political shading. When coupled with the digs at the way the authorities are handling things there is that recognizable subversive nature that was so pervasive in many films made in the seventies. Ken Takakura familiar to many from his role in The Yakuza (1975) with Robert Mitchum plays the leader of this group, Tetsuo Okita. He does intensity and brooding very well. We learn the back stories of the crew in a series of flashbacks initiated by Takakura. The first one starts as he smokes a cigarette. We see him looking thoughtful and reminiscing. Then it simply cuts to the flashback. In an artful edit when we return to the present day the ash on his cigarette has grown very long letting us know he was too preoccupied in his thoughts to smoke it. That’s a nice touch. The second time he focuses on one of his friends the flashback begins with a rather abrupt comic book style wipe that opens up in the middle of the screen. It seems a very odd choice that works against the drama.

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The few action scenes in the film are not all that riveting. A motorcycle chase comes across as perfunctory. It’s hard to maintain a taught level of suspense for the running time of this film. The length works against it. Another disaster film, The Towering Inferno made the year before had quite a few excellent action scenes and melodramatic storylines that were interspersed with the mounting tension of the fire’s progress. It was not high art at all but it did carry the film’s two and a half hours nicely. The Bullet Train itself looks terrific. There are plenty of scenes on board that are lots of fun. It is great to see the lunatic businessman freaking out that he won’t be able to close his big deal. He tells everyone it will ruin the country’s economy if he can’t make his meeting. A pregnant woman goes into labor. There looks to be either a pop group or bunch of hooligans running around, too. We are also treated to some scenes that were clearly done with scaled down model trains moving through a miniature set. They are not on the level of Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work but they are still wonderful to look at. The command center with the path of all the trains spread across the wall with blinking lights and bright colors reminded me of the one in the subway control booth in Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974). If you like these kind of pictures it is definitely worth a look, just temper your expectations. This is not a slam bang ride but it is fun. While you watch see if you get an idea to take the ransom plot device in the train and move it to a bus in Los Angeles and call it Speed.

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Video – 2.35:1
Twilight Time’s presentation looks great here. You absolutely get that seventies feel that some of the film stock had back then. Colors all look good but the focus is not entirely sharp. That’s the way it is supposed to look.

Audio – DTS HD MA 1.0 in English with subtitles offered in English SDH
The subtitles keep pace with the Japanese dialogue nicely. The soundtrack while not powerful supports the film well. The special effects track also takes more of a back seat than you may be used to.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, Big Movie, Big Panic: Junya Sato on The Bullet Train.

There is a good interview with the director. Unfortunately it is interrupted every five or so minutes by a scene from the film we just saw. Junya Sato gives a very interesting background to the characters of the criminals and how they reflected what was going on in Japanese society then. A lot of thought went into his decisions.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good

BEN-HUR (2016) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

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Stars – Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro
Director – Timur Bekmambetov

Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

How many times can you watch chariots race around the Coliseum in Rome? Apparently the answer is twice. Once with Ramon Novarro in 1925,once more with Charlton Heston in 1959 and that is it. These two films were spectacles. Huge endeavors with chariot races that will make your jaw drop. In this new film there is just no spectacle to be found in its 124 minutes. The film begins with a glimpse of the chariot race as a tease and then begins a flashback to join two brothers racing horses. They are having a great time. Morgan Freeman does the narration. The plot line from the original story is kind of tweaked and twisted around. Sure this is still the story of two brothers – one a Jew and the other an adopted boy. The adopted kid grows up to be a big wig in the Roman army. He manages to get his brother sentenced to being a slave on a ship while his mother and sister are taken away, presumably to be crucified.

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After five long years chained to a bench in the bowels of a Roman ship Judah Ben-Hur has bulked up into an amazingly fit young man while rowing day in and out. There is a fierce battle between two fleets of ships on the open seas. We don’t get much of an action rush from this sequence. The camera is constantly too close in on Judah and a few others. When we do get something like an overview of the ships on the water it looks like the kind of digital effects you’d find on a holiday greeting card. Very little looks real. After his ship is sunk and he washes up on a shore and become a horse whisperer extraordinaire for Morgan Freeman’s team of white horses. Where did he get this skill? All of a sudden he is feeding a horse charcoal to bring it back to health. He’s not only a vet and horse trainer but he can ride better than anyone in all of Arabia. Judah starts to show off his skills on the chariot draw by four beautiful whites horses. Morgan Freeman passes on savvy instruction about the sport of chariot racing. He teaches him a technique that requires tilting the entire rig to the side and riding up on one wheel. We know will come in handy in the climatic race later on in the picture.

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The principal photography that involves the main actors is rendered in lush tones and robust colors. Backgrounds are rich in detail. These scenes look great. Unfortunately there is not a whole lot of compelling character interplay. The tensions between the brothers, the Romans and the subjugated city of Jerusalem all play out as expected. Jesus Christ pops up every once in a while to offer some sage philosophy that slowly makes an impression on Judah. It’s ok but never much beyond that level. The second unit photography responsible for the main set piece in the entire film falls very short of the mark. The chariot race is an extremely poorly edited mish mash of a closes ups, blurs and CGI. In the included extra about the race we learn that separate chariots were built to portray the spirit of each country in the race. They are full on intricate details that embody that spirit. None of that is noticeable in the final scene. We also learn that a horse wrangler had a whole bevy of these beautiful animals on hand. Some were races, some we specialists in rearing up or other various trained talents. In the final product you’re hardly aware that there are real horses involved. What really stands out is the obviously digitally created horses that jump, twist and turn in a series of athletic stunts when the chariots crash. At one point during the race we find Morgan Freeman doing grounds crew duty telling guys to hustle with those stretchers to carry the downed racers off the track. Much of the work on the 1959 film’s race was done by the legendary Yakima Canutt. This man’s work is just breath taking. He knew horses, stuntmen and what you could and could not do with both. He’s responsible for most of the great scenes in westerns done in America. If you compare the two not only is it night and day but the vitality and spirit of what this man created just jumps off the screen. It feels real and exciting. CGI and the bounty of new HD camera abilities are able to compete in this realm, just not in this picture.

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The lead is Jack Huston who was so good in his role in Boardwalk Empire on HBO. Here he just seems lost. He is capable of so much more that we get to see. After he is condemned to row in the galley of a Roman ship he does the exact same deep and raspy voice he used in Boardwalk Empire to play a disfigured war vet. Freeman is as always dependable. We exudes an easy command over easy scene. The rapport between their two characters doesn’t appear to be drawn out in either the script or the direction. It is missed. I must confess that when I saw the 1959 version as a kid I was a bit done in by all the talking and costumed characters strutting about. However when that Chariot scene happened I was jolted back in my seat with my jaw dropped.

BEN-HUR,  Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur,  2016. ph: Philippe Antonello / © Paramount Pictures /

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Video – 2.39:1
Director of photography Oliver Wood gives everything a bright and regal look. Colors are robust. Flesh tones are gorgeous. As long as the characters stand around and chat things look terrific. The second unit work is comprised of way too many closes up that prevent us from taking in any of the action.

Audio – English: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, French: Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1, Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1 with subtitles offered in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish
All dialogue is nice and clear, Music swells and suitably supports the film. Morgan Freeman does the narration. He’s got an incredible voice yet when you listen to the 7.1 mix on this Blu-ray something is off. That part at the beginning feels thin and devoid of that bass resonance we are used to hearing. There was no other English audio option to compare. Once we get to the actors speaking on screen everything is fine.

Extras – The Epic Cast , A Tale For Our Times , The Chariot Race, Deleted and Extended Scenes , Music Videos

The extra on the Chariot Race is very interesting. We see attention paid to so many details. The work of the craftsmen and horse trainers is fascinating. It’s unfortunate that not a whole lot of that showed up on the screen due to the way it was shot and edited.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Fair