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HELL AND HIGH WATER (1954) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, June 24th, 2017

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Stars -  Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans

* Director -  Samuel Fuller *  Released by Twilight Time

Limited edition of  3,000 Units * Available at Screenarchives.com and Twilighttimemovies.com

 

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Sam Fuller is the guy who is usually found directing films in gritty locations where everyone has dirt under their fingernails. His unlikely heroes include a bald headed hooker trying to go straight and a racist dog that attacks people of color on sight. So what is this guy doing make a colorful widescreen Cinemascope film on a damn submarine? Sam is doing his usual thing. Bucking authority and plumbing the souls of his characters to see where their real morality and sense of right and wrong lives. He seems to relish putting his characters in tough spots that show what they are really made of. Richard Widmark’s code of honor gets severely tested in this cold war nuclear thriller. Richard Widmark starred in what is arguably Fuller’s best work, Pick Up On South Street right before this picture in 1953.  Here he plays a former Navy submarine captain. The war is over but he is invited by this hidden cabal of scientists who discover that someone lit off an atomic bomb somewhere in the Artic.  He is give a large amount of cash to take one of the scientists out there to find out as much as he can.  The man brings along a very pretty assistant.  When she comes on board there is the usual wolf whistling and complaining about have a woman on board.  One guys says she is a Jonah, bad luck.   Cameron Mitchell smirks as he says, that’s no lady, that’s a scientist. No one believes this cad for a moment.

This is part of the sub genre of war films ; ok forgive the pun. But this one has more in common with later sub efforts like Ice Station Zebra and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea than it does with the old ones like Run Silent Run Deep. Fuller gets knee deep in sticky politics amidst the action. Widmark’s commander is as well known for his refusal to take orders as he is for his remarkable skills at fighting on the open seas.  Fuller stages a remarkably tense battle sequence between two subs. As they sit silently on the bottom of the ocean trying to avoid detection they go to red.  All the electricity gets turned off and the entire inside of the sub is cast in an eerie red glow. The submerged bull fight that we see is not like any other submarine battle. There are more action scenes staged in the artic. Fuller does not skimp on the pyrotechniques either. These gun fights and explosions set against the ice and artic seas look good.  Yes, there’s been some clever editing here and there.  And yes there are miniatures to be found but I am willing to suspend my disbelief and get caught up in it.

What a great rogues gallery of guys he‘s got on board.  Every shot in this cramped sub is loaded with these mugs strung out from left to right at various angles to fill up the wide screen. While this succeeds as an effective thriller much is made of the tough decisions that must be made once the nature of that atomic bomb explosion is revealed. There are conflicts between patriotism, following orders on one’s own inner code of honor.  That is Fuller’s sweet spot. The lead scientist has this weighty line that sounds like if came from a classic Dickens novel. “Each man has his own reasons for living, Mr. Jones, and his own price for dying..”  I had never seen this one and must admit I liked it a helluva lot more that I thought I would.  It can be riveting in places and  I can feel Sam blowing his beloved cigar smoke in my face as he make his points.

Video -   2.55:1

Colors and detail are very strong here.  The material used looks to be in nice shape.

Very impressive.

Audio  – DTS-HD 5.1 and  DTS-HD 2.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH

Dialogue sounds fine and is easy enough to follow.  The music swell with emotion when its called to.  The 5.1 mix makes the stereo effects a but more pronounced with dialogue jumping from the left to right speaker as characters cross the screen talking .

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track,  Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters, Original theatrical trailers (2)

There is a good A & E Biography on Richard Widmark included.  We find out that he went to a pre World War II Germany to see for himself what was going on.  He shot amateur footage that is included here. He’s a terrific actor. Grab a pen and write down all the great pictures he was in that you may have not seen.

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

Blu-Ray -  Excellent

Movie  -   Excellent

HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, June 24th, 2017

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Stars – Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune * Director – John Boorman
* Released by Kino Studio Classics
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Testosterone on the high seas! This is just what you‘d expect from a film that stars American tough guy Lee Marvin and the legendary star of so many Japanese Samurai films, Toshiro Mifune. Well you absolutely get that but with John Boorman at the helm directing there is quite a bit more to this. Boorman had just finished working with Marvin in the action packed but decidedly unconventional thriller Point Blank. They got along well and trusted each other. Mifune would bring quite a different element to the proceedings.

The set up is simple. During World War II an American Flyer washes up on the shore of a remote island. That island is inhabited by a recently marooned Japanese naval officer whose ship went down. True to their training the two carry on their own private version of the war on that small island. They try to kill each other. They take each other prisoner. Then they begin to mess with each other. We see a series of tricks that are much dirtier than the Will E. Coyote vs. Road Runner variety. At one point Marvin takes a leak over an unsuspecting Mifune who runs into the ocean to wash off the indignity as Marvin roars with laugher. As we watch these interactions it becomes clear that when Marvin mumbles to himself in English only we can understand him. When Mifune unleashes his torrent of insults and commands in Japanese we and Lee Marvin can not understand him.  This language barrier has the marvelous effect of transporting the film into silent movie territory. The visuals carry everything. Personality clashes play out very clearly but without words, or at least words that have an effect.

As their uniforms begin to tatter and fall apart we are left with just the men. When they stand man to man without any uniforms to define them the two begin to work together to get off the island. This tentative truce is much more intriguing than you’d expect. A lot of that is due to the tremendous acting talent on screen. Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) the photographer uses seductive tropical colors and balmy leafy settings As they men clash the gorgeous shots of the ocean waves give a peaceful counterpoint to the proceedings. Eventually the calm of the seas will prevail. Watching this we realize that this private suspension of the war will get tested. Kino’s presentation gives use the version that was released to the theaters as well as the original ending that was shot. The nature of the film is very unusual. Only two people are in it and there is no real dialogue between them. Boorman does not go for any voice overs, subtitles or narration either. What you see is what you get. As the film rolls on you become accustomed to this style. It’s a very rewarding experience. Hell in the Pacific never seems to come up in discussions about Boorman or Marvin or Mifune or obscure war pictures. John Boorman’s film will take you someplace unexpected. Once there the lovely photography and two larger than life actors will take care of the rest. Much recommended !

Video – 2.35:1
The film looks wonderful. One could quibble with some of the early darker shots in the film where there is a bit of noise in the jungle underbrush. Be assured that those moments are fleeting. The film’s colors do get bolder in the bright exteriors on the beach.. Both actors are shot really well. There is a lot of detail and a consistently clever use of framing. This Blu-Ray edition submerges all previous home video releases.

Audio – English track with subtitles offered in English.
This is ultimately a visual experience. Lalo Schifrin (Enter The Dragon) contributes a good score but frankly the pictures seem to work well all on their own.

Extras – Interview with Director John Boorman | Alternate Ending | Audio Commentary by Film Historians Travis Crawford and Bill Ackerman| Interview with Art Director Anthony Pratt

The half hour plus interview with director Boorman is full of background information on how the film came together and recollections from the location shoot. He gives a good account of how frustrating it was to work with Mifune. The man proved to be very difficult to direct. Boorman tells a funny story about the translator stuck between the two of them during their frequent and ongoing arguments.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Monday, June 19th, 2017

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Stars – Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, Andy Garcia * Director – Hal Ashby

Released by Kino Studio Classics * Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Any Jeff Bridges film is worth seeing. From early on he had a good eye for scripts picking projects that either resulted in great films or interesting projects. Films like Bad Company, The Last American Hero, Winter Kills and Cutter’s Way all deserve more attention. This film was based on the Matt Scudder character that writer Lawrence Block featured in a series of mystery crime novels. Jeff Bridges plays the alcoholic ex cop with his typical commitment to the role. The case this time involves a high priced call girl (Alexandra Paul) who hires him to help her break free from her pimp. Bridges manages to excavate her from the pimp but on her way to the airport she is murdered by the crazed drug dealer played by Andy Garcia. Apparently when shooting started they only had sixty pages of script written by Oliver Stone (Platoon). The beginning of the book with the call girl’s murder had been stretched way beyond the simple kick off plot device it was. The rest of the film is a convoluted dance between Bridges and Andy Garica as they alternately take care of or advantage of another call girl in the stable, Rosanna Arquette. er character’s motivations are hard to believe they go much beyond self preservation. There is an awful lot of drug and alcohol consumption which the film reflects with its hazy narrative.
In a film by someone like John Cassavetes the improvisational acting is often the main attraction. Directors like Robert Altman often used the technique to bring an artful naturalness to his scenes. However interesting it may make the way we look at a character or embellish the power of a scene it’s no way to find a narrative story line. This film suffers quite a bit due to the obviously meandering nature of way the weak story is told. In the included interviews we learn that the project was taken away from director Ashby and edited by others so it would be ready for the theaters in time. Apparently he wanted to have some parts of the story intentionally seen through the alcoholic haze of Scudder’s character as he falls of the wagon. There are times when Scudder is completely out of it in the film. They are played well by Bridges but they never get a chance to show that they are much more than an interesting side to a character as opposed to a direction the film is trying to take.
On the plus side Bridges is always fun to watch. He and Garcia do this very amusing improvisation with Italian ices in the middle of a tense hostage negotiation. There is a good action set piece in an empty building that becomes a stand off between Bridges threatening to burn a colossal amount of Garcia’s heroin and one of Garcia’s men dragging Arquette around by a shotgun taped to her neck. Unfortunately the action devolves into an extended series of shots of Garcia shouting and yelling expletives. 8 Million Ways to Die is a miss however there is plenty to enjoy in the performances of Bridges, Garcia and Arquette. This was Hal Ashby’s swan song, his last film. He had recently shot a concert film of the Rolling Stones, Let’s Spend The Night which looked very good. His sense of humor is all over his best work. Films like The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, and Being There all benefit from that wonderful spirit. This may not be a great film but again I’ll see any film Jeff Bridges is in.
Video – 1.85:1
This new transfer looks perfectly acceptable. Some of the detail in the darker scenes suffers a bit.
Audio – English track with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The music and effects are both mixed well.
Extras – Interview with Star Andy Garcia | Interview with Star Rosanna Arquette | Interview with Star Alexandra Paul | Interview with Writer Lawrence Block | Audio commentary by Film Historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson | Trailers
In the newly included interviews Rosanna Arquette has fond remembrances of working on the shoot. She talks about making cassette music tapes for the director. Andy Garcia also praises the tremendous latitude that director Ashby allowed him with his interpretation of his role. He even let him bring in a group of his actors friends to play his gang. Lawrence Block when he visited the set found Ashby to be a ghost of his former self.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Fair / Good

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, June 17th, 2017

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Stars – Tony Musante, Eva Renzi, Suzy Kendall
Director – Dario Argento * Released by Arrow Films
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage marks the debut of cult horror director Dario Argento. Argento shows an awful lot of confidence and style for his fist feature. In the opening sequence we meet Tony Musante an American writer living in Italy. He has just completed a book on birds. He takes the check for his work but declines his author’s copy of the volume. On the way home at night he spots a savage fight between a man and a woman in an art gallery. They are framed behind massive store front windows. There are huge statues with clawed feet and lots of empty white space. Up on a stairway someone in black is going after a women in white with a knife. Blood spills. The figure in black spots Tony and takes off. We see the woman scream but we can’t hear her. Tony tries to get in but becomes trapped between a second set of glass doors as the figure in black locks them on his way out. So not only do we get the voyeur identification from watching this attempted murder in an art gallery but we become trapped in the fish bowl alongside the man who spotted this. The woman screams. Tony asks her where the door switch is. There is all this talk but no one can hear anyone. It’s as useless as screaming look out to a character on screen in the movie you are watching. A woman walks by outside and Tony is able get her to call the cops through hand signals. The detectives and cops finally arrive and begin to mark the crime scene and ask questions. That is a very stylish opening that shows this Argento fellow has watched a lot of Hitchcock films.

The next bit that becomes so intriguing is the relationship that develops between the lead detective Morosini and Musante. Enrico Maria Salerno plays this man as an open friendly fellow who is tasked with yet another impossible job. There have been three murders. All women. All done in a similar fashion. Musante gets grilled and told not to leave town. However he becomes fascinated with the case and begins to play amateur detective. Morosini surprisingly welcomes the help. It’s a clever bit of writing that invites us as an audience to play along and try to figure out who done it. But any of us who know these kind of films will smile at the invitation because we know it’s a set up. Somebody has a very neat twist up their sleeve in store for us.

Agento rightfully gets credit for helping to kick off and define the giallo subgenre. Giallo films regularly feature a killer clad in black. They exhibit a knife fetish and favor wearing slick gloves to commit their murders. The victims are frequently beautiful women. Bloodshed and nudity often accompany these attacks. Argento’s film established all this grammar but he often favors a bit of teasing brinkmanship at times at least in this instance. The look of the film is outstanding. Compositions and color choices stand out in a professional fashion. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack offers strong orchestral support. It’s great to see this film that depends so much on its visuals looking this good. And yes the title does figure into it.

Video – 2.35:1
The new 4K transfer looks fantastic. Colors look bold and display lots of shades. The compositions by Vittorio Storaro are continually entertaining. More than enough grain is retained still give a nice filmic quality to the shots but nothing distorts or crushes.

Audio – Mono DTS track in Italian and English with subtitles offers in English SDH
Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack sounds nice even in the mono presentation here. Dialogue has that dubbed feel to it which one gets used pretty quickly.

Extras – Commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films The Power of Perception, a new visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Devil s Advocates: Suspiria and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study New analysis of the film by critic Kat Ellinger New interview with writer/director Dario Argento New interview with actor Gildo Di Marco (Garullo the pimp) Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp Limited edition 60-page booklet illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie, and new writing by Howard Hughes and Jack Seabrook

Kat Ellinger offers up a very detailed look at Argento’s work here. She talks about his gender bending choices in this film and others. She makes some interesting points that shed new light on one’s appreciation of the director. Troy Howarth contributes a commentary loaded with information. We learn a lot about the friction the director had with the American actor Tony Musante on the set. Troy points out though that he remains very likeable through out the film being in almost every single scene. This man loves his Italian horror, knows his stuff and is more than happy to make you a convert and fan of the style by the time you finish your hour and a half listening to him.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movies – Excellent