Saturday, October 21, 2017

LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL








A couple years ago, I did a series of posts listing my top 100 movies of all time. When the list was completed, I was surprised to find out that three of the films on it were directed by John Sturges--THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE, and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. Sturges gets almost no critical appreciation today--at least not in comparison with some of his contemporaries like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.

The work of John Sturges should get more attention. He made tough, dramatic, suspenseful films about determined and serious-minded characters. Sturges was an expert in using unique outdoor locations, and he was a master at using widescreen. All of Sturges' films have an exemplary visual style. He worked with many of the biggest screen stars of the 1950s and 1960s, and he never failed to get great performances out of them.

A John Sturges Western that doesn't seem to be all that well known is LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL, released in 1959 and produced by Hal Wallis for Paramount. The movie stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, and the story may remind some of HIGH NOON and 3:10 FROM YUMA.

Kirk Douglas plays Marshal Matt Morgan. At the beginning of the story Morgan's Native American wife is raped and killed by Rick Belden (Earl Holliman), the worthless son of cattle baron Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). The elder Belden happens to be an old friend of Morgan's, which complicates matters...especially since the man happens to be the town boss of Gun Hill, which means that Morgan can expect no help when he travels to the town to bring in his wife's killer. Despite this, Morgan is determined to be on the 9 PM train out of Gun Hill, with the younger Belden in his custody. Morgan manages to capture Rick, and he takes refuge in the town hotel, surrounded by Craig's men. Whether or not Morgan is able to succeed makes for a taut and suspenseful climax.

I've always felt that the decade of the 1950s was the when the best Hollywood Westerns were made. These films were able to deal with social issues that movies set in contemporary times could not. LAST TRAIN ON GUN HILL tackles rape, murder, racism, and law & order, among other things. The assault and killing of Matt Morgan's wife takes place off-screen--all we heard is the woman's screams, which is unsettling enough. The fact that Morgan's wife was a Native American causes several people in the story to consider that the crime wasn't really all that serious. Morgan obviously hates Rick, but he doesn't just go ahead and kill him on his own--Morgan believes that as a U.S. Marshal he has a responsibility to bring the man in and have him go through the legal process. There's not a lot of gunplay or violence in LAST TRAIN TO GUN HILL--the dramatic tension between the characters is the main highlight. The best scene in the movie takes place in the hotel room where Morgan has Rick handcuffed to a bed. The Marshal tells his captive, in excruciating detail, exactly what happens to a man when he's hung. Kirk Douglas is darkly effective here--it's as if the Marshal's pent-up sadness and frustration is finally let loose. No one could do simmering anger like Kirk Douglas--but he still is able to show that Morgan is human enough to follow the letter of the law.

Anthony Quinn has the proper powerful screen presence to play Craig Belden. Belden and Morgan were great friends at one time, but the cattle baron's success since then seems to have changed him. Belden believes his power over the town of Gun Hill makes him (and his son) untouchable. Belden is a widower (the death of his wife probably has something to do with his present personality), but he does have a mistress named Linda (Carolyn Jones). Belden treats her as his personal property, and Linda winds up helping Morgan. Everyone thinks of Carolyn Jones as Morticia in THE ADDAMS FAMILY TV show, but she's excellent here as a woman who has had too many bad experiences. A young Earl Holliman plays Rick as a unlikable punk, but when you see him interact with his father you start to understand why he became that way.

LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL, is an exciting, atmospheric adult Western that wraps everything up in only 94 minutes. It's a movie that deserves more attention.








Wednesday, October 18, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049








I have to admit that when I first heard there was going to be a sequel to BLADE RUNNER, I groaned. Did we really need another years-after-the-original movie riding on the coattails of a famous brand name? I'm happy to say, however, that BLADE RUNNER 2049 exceeded my expectations.

This is going to be a difficult post to write, for the simple reason that divulging any part of the story line will be too much. All I should really tell you is that the film takes place 30 years after the events of BLADE RUNNER, and leave it at that. BLADE RUNNER 2049 presents the audience with a series of mysteries, and some of them are revealed, some not. It is a film that needs the viewer's strict attention, and it also requires the viewers to think about what they have seen. The movie asks questions about identity and reality, and like the best science-fiction, it uses the "future" to comment on what is happening in society right now.

The original BLADE RUNNER became a cult movie due mainly to its cinematography, production design, and complicated screenplay. BLADE RUNNER 2049 follows in this tradition. It builds and expands upon the world created for BLADE RUNNER instead of just imitating it. By creating a believable and intriguing society, BLADE RUNNER 2049 hearkens back to the great hardcore science-fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s.

I do have to mention that this film is nearly three hours long. I've spent a lot of time in the last few years complaining about the length of modern day movies, but in this case there's a legitimate reason for the running time. Director Dennis Villeneuve takes his time, establishing the surroundings of the characters instead of indulging in rapid fire editing. You can't blame Villeneuve for showing off the exquisite cinematography of Roger Deakins, one of the film's main strengths. (The film geek within me was happy to see that the name most bandied about in the pre-release internet buzz on this film was that of Deakins, instead of any of the actors.)

BLADE RUNNER 2049 needs to be seen on the big screen, and if you want to see it that way, you'd better hurry up--the movie has already been considered a bomb by the media. But it is also a movie that will probably best be appreciated with multiple viewings, much like its predecessor. I can understand why it is not a box-office hit--it's a moody, dark film, and it makes no concessions to a mainstream audience. There's so much more I'd like to write about this movie, but I want people to discover what's in it for themselves, and decide on their own what they think about it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Book Review: STAR WARS--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW










The latest title in the series of novelizations based on the Star Wars Universe is particularly noteworthy. STAR WARS--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW celebrates the 40th anniversary of the original film by bringing together 40 different stories featuring the background characters of the story.

The chapters, each written by different authors, are arranged in roughly the same chronological order as the events in the actual film. The result is that reading this book is like experiencing the film through a series of deleted or alternate scenes. It's a brilliantly creative idea, and I hope that in the future THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI get the same treatment.

Among the characters showcased are Captain Antilles of the Blockade Runner, the bartender of the Mos Eisley Cantina, and even the creature in the Death Star trash compactor. We find out what Bail Organa and his wife were doing during their last moments on Alderaan, and we learn what it was like to stand at attention during the medal ceremony at the Rebel base on the Yavin moon.

My favorite chapter concerns a report written by Admiral Motti on the "incident" between him and Darth Vader in the Death Star conference room. This chapter does have a satirical bent to it....but it does kind of make you see Motti's view of the situation.

There's a few names among the writers that stand out--actors Wil Wheaton and Ashley Eckstein, Marvel Comics writer Kieron Gillen, and Harley Quinn co-creator Paul Dini.

Your enjoyment of this book will be directly tied to how big a Star Wars fan you are. For someone like me, this volume is pure geek heroin. It also shows that a film as famous and as well-known as the original STAR WARS can still inspire artists to reveal new angles on it. Even if you have seen STAR WARS a hundred times, this book will make you want to watch it and think about it again.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: ISHIRO HONDA--A Life In Film, From Godzilla To Kurosawa








When I started becoming a film buff as a teenager in the 1980s, relevant information about the science-fiction & kaiju films produced by Japan's Toho Studios was almost non-existent. Whenever they were discussed in books and magazines, it was usually in a simplistic and derogatory manner. (I remember that one of those Golden Turkey books named Ishiro Honda as one of the worst directors of all time.) Of course back then the Japanese giant monster movies were only available in their edited, pan-and-scan American versions, which did the films no justice.

Thankfully, the 21st Century has seen nearly all of Toho's kaiju titles released on home video in their original, uncut, widescreen editions. Toho's science-fiction output has recently been given proper critical evaluation, and a welcome addition to that is a new biography by Japanese film experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. ISHIRO HONDA--A Life In Film, From Godzilla To Kurosawa is the definitive story of Godzilla's most famous director.

The book charts more than just Ishiro Honda's work on the Godzilla series. It details his early humble beginnings, his training in the Japanese film industry during the early 1930s, and the interruption of his career with service in the Imperial Army. The authors reveal that Honda was drafted three different times, and it's easy to discern from this biography that the man was very grateful to have survived the experience and gone on to make movies for a living.

After World War II Honda went back to work for Toho Studios as an assistant director, and he eventually got to direct films on his own. He was eventually assigned to a project that would become the very first Godzilla film in 1954, and the success of that would change Honda's life. It wasn't until the 1960s that Honda worked almost exclusively on science-fiction and kaiju films. Before then the director made all sorts of stories--war movies, gangster pictures...he even directed a biography of a famous Japanese baseball pitcher. The authors go out of their way to analyse these little-known parts of Honda's career.

This book portrays Honda as a quiet, unassuming man who was a hard-working professional. For most of his working life Honda was under contract to Toho (much like Hollywood directors were under contract to American studios during the 1930s and 40s), and while he might have inwardly been dismayed at some of the films he was given, he never allowed it to show in his work. The authors detail Honda's collaborations with famed Toho talents such as special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya and music composer Akira Ifukube. Many of Honda's family members and co-workers were interviewed for this biography, including actors Akira Takarada, Kenji Sahara, and Kumi Mizuno.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book deals with Honda's relationship with Akira Kurosawa. The two met while beginning to work in the Japanese film industry in the 1930s, and they had a lifelong friendship. In the later years of both men's lives Kurosawa asked Honda to be something of an assistant to him, and they worked together on legendary films such as KAGEMUSHA and RAN. The authors suggest that Honda may have had more input on Kurosawa's later work than is generally realized.

The book features a number of rare photos from Honda's career, and a complete Ishiro Honda filmography. The foreword is written by Martin Scorsese.

ISHIRO HONDA is a magnificent biography--vastly informative, objective, and respectful of its subject. I'm sure most prospective readers will be most interested in Honda's kaiju titles, but you don't have to be a Godzilla fan to enjoy this book. I believe that anyone interested in film & world history will appreciate it. The authors deserve kudos for defining Ishiro Honda as not just a guy who made giant monster movies, but a successful and accomplished filmmaker in his own right.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

THE LONG RIDERS On Kino Blu-ray











THE LONG RIDERS (1980) is one of the best Westerns made during the late 20th Century. It is another examination of the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang in post-Civil War Mid-America, but it is far more down-to-earth than the many other Hollywood tales about the group. What most remember about THE LONG RIDERS is that real-life brothers played the major roles--James & Stacy Keach as the James brothers, David, Keith, and Robert Carradine as the Youngers, Randy & Dennis Quaid as the Millers, and Nicholas & Christopher Guest as the Fords. While the casting is notable, it's more than just a gimmick. The prime movers behind this film getting made happened to be the Keach brothers, and it was their idea to have other acting siblings in the production.

THE LONG RIDERS was directed by Walter Hill, and he went out of his way to make the film not look like the typical American Western. In the extras on this Blu-ray, Hill states that the movie is actually a Midwestern, since it takes place mostly in Missouri. The members of the James-Younger gang had a farming background, and they were not cowboys. Most of the film was shot in Northern Georgia, and it has a green, pastoral look to it instead of a brown, desolate feel. Hill does not present the gang members as wronged Robin Hoods, or outright savages--he shows them as they are, and he doesn't try to explain or give some sort of reason for the gang's actions.

Even though James Keach as Jesse James is the nominal lead character, the movie is really an ensemble piece, and all the actors are given a chance to shine. You still feel that you don't get to know the members of the gang all that well (I think that may have been the director's intent). There's plenty of gunplay in THE LONG RIDERS, but Walter Hill, like his contemporaries Sam Peckinpah and John Milius, knew how to use action & violence for maximum impact, instead of today's directors who lay it on with a trowel. The climax, which features the gang's botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, is one of the best shoot-outs ever put on film. Instead of overwhelming the audience with action, Hill uses it at just the right time.

Special mention needs to be made of the music score by Ry Cooder--it is a score prized by soundtrack aficionados. Cooder's music is simple, but it is quirky, atmospheric and of the period. As soon as the movie starts and you hear Cooder's main theme, you know that this is not the usual Hollywood Western.

The packaging on this Kino Blu-ray claims that it is a brand new 4K restoration, and the transfer does look beautiful. There are two choices of audio--5.1 and 2.0, and both sound very robust. What really makes this Blu-ray impressive is the number of extras Kino has provided for it. There are so many  supplements, they are given an entire disc to themselves. There are brand new interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, James Keach, Stacy Keach, Randy Quaid, and Nicholas Guest. There are also new interviews with Walter Hill, Ry Cooder, and producer Tim Zinnemann. An hour-long documentary on the making of the film is included, along with an anatomy of the Northfield Raid sequence, and a short piece where Walter Hill discusses his relationship with Sam Peckinpah. There is also an audio commentary with Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell & Nathaniel Thompson (I have not listened to this yet). The interviews are not just the usual "I loved working on this project" fluff--they are all worthy of viewing, and Walter Hill's remarks in particular about the making of the film are very enlightening.

It's nice to see an underrated film like THE LONG RIDERS get a Criterion-like treatment on home video. I personally believe it is the best film about Jesse James ever made.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

THE LOST WORLD (1925) On Blu-ray From Flicker Alley








The 1925 silent movie THE LOST WORLD is one of the most important and influential fantastic films ever made. This adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's famed novel about the discovery of dinosaurs on a remote plateau near the Amazon set the template for almost all giant monster stories to follow. The original KING KONG, the GODZILLA movies, even modern films such as JURASSIC PARK were inspired by THE LOST WORLD. The basic story structure of THE LOST WORLD is still being used in productions to this day.

For several years, the only way one could view THE LOST WORLD was through a succession of poor quality public domain home video versions. This Blu-ray version, produced by Lobster and Blackhawk Films, uses nearly a dozen different elements to create what is the longest and most complete example of the film since its original release.

Because so many elements were used, the end result is not of pristine quality...but there is far more detail than on other releases, especially in the scenes featuring special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation. And it is O'Brien's work that is the lead star of this movie. You can't watch THE LOST WORLD and judge it against 21st Century FX techniques--one has to place it in the context of the times, and realize that O'Brien's work was groundbreaking and extraordinary.

Not only has the film been restored visually, intertitles and tinting & toning have been restored as well. A brand new music score has been created for the Blu-ray by silent film composer Robert Israel, and it fits the story very well.

A beautifully designed 16-page booklet is included in the release. The booklet contains an article written by Serge Bromberg, and it goes into great detail on the how's and why's of the restoration. An excellent and insightful audio commentary features Nicolas Ciccone, and it is chock full of information on all aspects of THE LOST WORLD. Ciccone goes out of his way to give background on Conan Doyle's novel and how it compares to the movie.

Other extras include examples of O'Brien's stop-motion work for films before THE LOST WORLD, and there's deleted scenes from the film. There's also some footage from O'Brien's unfinished project CREATION, and a image gallery.

Releases from Flicker Alley are a bit more expensive than the usual Blu-ray, but this one is worth the price. It is simply an outstanding package, and it will more than likely wind up on my year-end Top 5 2017 Blu-rays post. I know many folks will not watch a silent film to save their lives, and those same people won't appreciate any type of vintage special effects--but most of the geek cinema today's audiences flock to is descended in some way from THE LOST WORLD.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

OSS 117: FIVE FILM COLLECTION







Kino Lorber's OSS 117: FIVE FILM COLLECTION set brings a series of Eurospy adventures to Region A Blu-ray for the very first time. The five movies in this set feature a character with the rather florid name of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath. Despite the moniker, he's an American secret agent, code number OSS 117, created by French author Jean Bruce. Not only did OSS 117 make his literary debut before the first Ian Fleming James Bond novel, the character's first film was made before Bond's movie debut in DR. NO.

I had never seen these movies before, but I had read about them in an article a few years back in Tim Lucas' VIDEO WATCHDOG. I've seen a few Eurospy films, and I thought this might be a set worth having. After all, what is hard earned money for but to spend on obscure films the average person has never heard of?

The set presents five OSS 117 films from the 1960s spread over three discs. The first disc has two films starring Kerwin Mathews (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) as OSS 117: OSS 117 IS UNLEASHED and OSS 117: PANIC IN BANGKOK. Disc two has a pair of films starring Frederick Stafford (TOPAZ) as the secret agent. Disc three has OSS 117: DOUBLE AGENT, with John Gavin (PSYCHO) now playing the lead role. All the films are in French, with English subtitles. (I don't have a problem with subtitles, but this may dissuade some from buying the set.)

I would describe the movies as being "James Bond Lite". These productions are certainly not cheap--they were filmed around the world, using all sorts of remote and exotic locations. Just like 007, every woman OSS 117 happens to come into contact with is drop dead gorgeous, but any romantic entanglements are on a PG-13 type of level. The violence in these movies is PG-13 as well--there's a fair amount of action, but the films do not wallow in gore or unpleasantness. Surprisingly the OSS 117 movies feature more one-on-one fight scenes than they do major gunplay. In every movie OSS 117 has a knock-down drag-out fight with at least two or three different people, and these are staged very well--I would even say they are on the 007 level.

Many of the films actually anticipate future 007 productions in terms of locations, plot devices, etc. I'm not saying that someone who was involved in the Bond films ripped off the OSS 117 series--but the fact that there are so many similarities can't help but make one wonder.

What the OSS 117 films really lack when compared against the Bond series is the energetic pace of the 007 features. In the OSS 117 movies scenes have a tendency to drag on a bit too long, and dialogue sequences are far more prevalent. The OSS 117 films also all have jazzy-lounge type music scores, which I feel negate the suspense instead of add to it (There's no John Barry equivalent for OSS 117).

As for the actors who play OSS 117 in this set, there's not that much variation between them--they all come off as passable James Bond wannabes. If I had to make a choice among the actors, I'd pick Frederick Stafford, simply because he was in what I consider to be the best two movies in this set.

OSS 117 IS UNLEASHED (1963) has Kerwin Mathews sent to Corsica to investigate the death of a fellow agent. OSS 117 finds that the death has to do with a plot to undermine America's nuclear submarines. This film is the only one in the set that is in black & white, and it has a low-key, noir type of atmosphere to it--it kind of reminded me of a German Krimi film (especially with all jazz music in the background). This movie is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Mathews returns in OSS 117: PANIC IN BANGKOK (1964). The producers spent a lot more money on this one--it is in color and 2.35:1 widescreen, and OSS 117 spends most of his time in various Thailand locations, a decade before James Bond would in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. The plot focus here is on a sinister doctor who is developing a way to spread plague throughout the world. The ending has OSS 117 and his compatriots taking on the doctor's minions in a gun battle inside a old monastery. This movie is much better than OSS 117 IS UNLEASHED. I'll always think of Kerwin Mathews as Sinbad, but he did a very good job in his two OSS 117 outings (it would have been nice to hear his line readings, though).

Andre Hunebelle directed the first two films in the set, and he also helms OSS 117: MISSION FOR A KILLER (1965), which introduces Frederick Stafford as the secret agent. This is my favorite of the films, with OSS 117 traveling to Rio to find out who is behind the assassination of a number of world leaders. It has to do with a plant in the Amazon jungle that can force people to kill, and the evil group using it. There's several fine action scenes here, including a fight featuring a blowtorch, and a paratroop assault upon the evil group's base at the climax. This movie has a few things in common with MOONRAKER--the Rio setting, a fight inside an airplane, and the fact that in the Bond film Hugo Drax's scheme also involves Amazonian plants. This film is also in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen & color.

OSS 117: MISSION TO TOKYO (1966) predates James Bond's trip to Japan in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Michel Boisrond directs this one, which has OSS 117 trying to stop a another evil group from using miniature jet planes to destroy U.S. military installations. The secret agent fights a sumo wrestler and a man wielding a samurai sword, among other threats. MISSION TO TOKYO is in color and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.

OSS 117: DOUBLE AGENT (1968) introduces John Gavin as OSS 117 (the story even uses the idea of plastic surgery to explain the agent's changed appearance). OSS 117 infiltrates a nefarious organization (known cleverly enough as..."The Organization") who supplies assassins for various operations around the world. The agent travels from Rome to the Middle East, and three actresses known to cult movie buffs are showcased here: Margaret Lee (CIRCUS OF FEAR), Luciana Paluzzi (THUNDERBALL), and Rosalbi Neri (LADY FRANKENSTEIN). The head of "The Organization" is played by Curd Jurgens, who would go on to be the main villain in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. This movie is okay, but it lacks the major action set-pieces of the earlier films. The disc cover lists the aspect ration for this film as 2.35:1, but it appears to be 1.85:1.

All the films in this set have excellent transfers. The only extras are three trailers located on disc three. (It would have been nice to have it least one commentary to discuss the OSS 117 character and the series in detail.) The back of the disc sleeve has a collection of stills and posters from the films.

I was pleasantly surprised by the OSS 117 set. These movies are not on the exact level of the 007 series, but they are not that far below it. If you've seen enough 1960s secret agent movies and TV shows you will be familiar with this material, but all the titles here are entertaining, and worth watching (and they all contain plenty of eye candy).