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Review of THE IPCRESS FILE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Spy drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, a name familiar to Bond fans because it was Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli who gave us Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. But don’t approach this one thinking it’s a cousin to the slightly campy and always sexy James Bond adventures. The Ipcress File has more in common with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), because it offers a more realistic view of spies and also prominently features brainwashing—a term credited to Edward Hunter, who in 1950 wrote about mind-control techniques that China used on American prisoners of war.

By “a more realistic view of spies” I mean that there are no exotic locations, no scantily clad women willing to do anything for their country, and no physical conflict, really, until we’re some 30 minutes into the film. Before that there’s a little sleuthing and surveillance and a lot of trying to find one’s place in a new post of assignment.

Based on Len Deighton’s novel, which came out the same year as The Manchurian Candidate, this 1965 film is rated #59 on the BFI list of 100 greatest British films. Instead of the peppy and campy action in the Bond films, Saltzman and director Sidney J. Furie (Iron Eagle, The Appaloosa) chose to play it low-key, concentrating instead of unique shots and camera angles to keep viewers interested.

Harry Palmer (a young Michael Caine) is assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings of leading scientists who turn up eventually with their minds completely erased. Somewhere along the way Palmer finds a clue—the word “Ipcress”—and it leads him through a tangled web of deceit, double agents, and spies keeping tabs on other spies. The latter, in fact, was something that Ian Fleming described as commonplace in the early days of Cold War spying, and it feels authentic here. But as a result of all this truth-in-spying, the pace is considerably slower than a Bond film. Takes and scenes are longer as if to suggest real time. More

Review of I AM A DANCER (1972) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Dance documentary
Not rated (would be G)

Ballet Dancers Guide lists five “most legendary” dancers in history: Marie Taglioni (1804-84), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), and Margot Fonteyn (1919-91). You can see two of them dance in this newly released Blu-ray of the 1972 Pierre Jourdan film.

Nureyev, who also makes the top four list of “most famous ballet dancers in history,” according to DanceUS.org, is the focus of this documentary, but don’t expect to learn a lot about Nureyev’s life. This isn’t a cradle-to-grave biography, and it doesn’t intercut old photos and film clips with talking heads.

I Am a Dancer, is less biography and more of a montage of Nureyev dancing: in training, in rehearsal, and in performance. And unlike documentaries that are heavily scripted and edited, Jourdan, for the most part, just turns on his camera, relying on viewers to appreciate the long takes as a means of understanding the dedication, hard work, and passion that it takes to become or remain one of the world’s most talented dancers. We do get a few moments when Nureyev appears on camera responding to interview questions—“I live in my suitcase, and my only ground is my work”—and we do get periodic voiceover narrations written by John Percival and voiced by Bryan Forbes, but for the most part any narration is minimal.

In other words, if you’re looking for Nureyev’s story—how a young man born on a Trans-Siberian train ended up as a dancer in the Kirov Ballet, became the first artist to defect from the Soviet Union to the West, found a new home as principal dancer with The Royal Ballet in London, then served as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and tragically died of AIDS at the age of 54—you’ll have to look elsewhere. The White Crow, a controversial 2019 biopic starring Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev, fills that bill.

I Am a Dancer showcases a great dancer dancing, but I can’t say that this is great filmmaking. In fact, a gimmicky “fly’s-eye” lens that shows multiple images is so over-used that it’s annoying and detracts from the dance, while the Vaseline lens for other shots seems Playboyesque and dated. That the film earned a Golden Globe nomination is somewhat surprising, though it’s possible that at the time it was considered “brave” to let the story mostly tell itself. More

Review of P.J. (1968) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
Crime drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The pandemic has prompted most major studios to delay theatrical releases and slow down the production of home theater titles. Since Covid has made shut-ins of us all, big studios have released fewer films new to Blu-ray and DVD and more titles that are rereleases in the relatively new ultra-HD 4K format. But not Kino Lorber. They continue to remaster lesser-known older films for Blu-ray that feel like pleasant surprises when you watch them.

P.J. is a good example of that. This all-but-forgotten 1968 private detective film—which has never before been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray in the U.S.—has one foot in the hard-boiled PI genre, and another foot in the groovy sixties that inspired Mike Meyers to poke fun of the decade in his Austin Powers spy spoofs. In fact, there’s a club scene where two female go-go dancers do their go-go thing in a gigantic martini glass, swirling and shimmying around like a couple of human olives, and that scene feels as if it could have been shot for an Austin Powers film. Oh behave!

The music seems straight out of Austin Powers too, so fans of that parody will enjoy seeing where the inspiration came from—not this film precisely, but films like it that were produced during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Yet P.J. is also strongly evocative of other neo-noir PI films from the period, like Harper, Klute, Tony Rome, Night Moves, and the Robert Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely.

George Peppard (TV’s The A-Team, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) plays a down-but-not-out New York PI who takes a bodyguard job because it’s preferable to getting his legs broken by loan sharks and mob bosses. The Korean War vet is hired to protect the mistress (Gayle Hunnicutt) of the rich and powerful (and shady) William Orbison, played against type by the rotund Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Ironsides). What P.J. doesn’t know is that the job isn’t just dangerous—somebody has already shot at her—it’s also a set-up. Who wants her dead? Who’s behind it all? Who’s using him as a pawn? And why does Orbison flaunt his affair in front of his wife, even forcing his wife to meet the “other woman”? More

Review of CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Western-horror
Not rated (would be PG)

A week ago, if you had asked me to name a Western that bridged genres and included vampires, I would have said, “I know, I know: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula!” That 1966 movie is famous for being so absolutely awful that it’s not even laughably bad—an insipid film that’s only known for the blending of genres that everyone thought unique. But a few days ago I became aware of another vampire Western—Curse of the Undead—and it turns out that this black-and-white 1959 film was really the first vampire Western.

What’s more—and here’s the shocker—it’s not a silly movie that takes itself seriously, thereby setting itself up for an audience that likes campy films, films that are wink-wink so bad that they’re kinda good. You need to know this, so you won’t look at the cover art and think, Oh, we’re going to have so much fun making fun of this rotten film. It’s not rotten and it’s not campy. Writer-director Edward Dein, who would go on to direct Robert Conrad in three TV series (Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West, The Black Sheep Squadron), plays this absolutely straight. It’s a surprisingly good drama that treats vampires a little less like Universal monsters and more like what legend says they were. If it were shorter, it might pass for an episode of The Twilight Zone, and tonally it’s very much like the classic monster movies that Universal cranked out in previous decades.

To make the Western aspect work, it helps that one of the stars is Eric Fleming, who played Gil Favor on the highly respected Rawhide (think Blues Brothers!) TV series and also appeared in several episodes of Bonanza, that other long-running TV Western. In this vampire Western, Fleming plays Preacher Dan. Somebody has to have a cross, right?

One of the other stars is John Hoyt, who appeared in such TV Westerns as The Virginian, The Big Valley, Laredo, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Laramie, The Rifleman, Death Valley Days, and Union Pacific. All of those Westerns were popular because they were aimed at adults. They were serious dramas and not just Saturday morning formulaic shoot-‘em-ups.

In this film, even the vampire—Michael Pate—worked in TV Westerns that were played for drama, not laughs, including shows like Zane Grey Theater, Maverick, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Sugarfoot, and Broken Arrow. These guys knew how to play cowboys, and it’s both surprising and refreshing that the vampire in Curse of the Undead doesn’t transform into a bat, doesn’t say “I vant to suck your blood,” and doesn’t behave like he just got in from Transylvania. He looks and acts like the kind of gunslinger you’d encounter in the Old West: dark and menacing as a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

There’s always a ranch or town boss in a Western who’s the villain, but when there’s a vampire gunman in town any villain is going to seem soft by comparison—even someone like Bruce Gordon, who played Frank Nitti in the old Untouchables TV series and also appeared with Vincent Price in Tower of London. And there’s always a damsel in distress, a delectable morsel-in-waiting in every vampire movie. Here, the part is played by Kathleen Crowley, who was in her fair share of B movies and Westerns, including The Rebel Set, Target Earth, Female Jungle, and Maverick. More

Review of THE SECRET GARDEN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Family Drama
Rated PG

There seems to be just one rule for adapting a classic of children’s literature: stay close to the book. It’s a wonder more filmmakers don’t follow that unwritten rule.

The Secret Garden is a case in point. The 1949 release starring Margaret O’Brien earned a 7.5 out of 10 from audiences at the Internet Movie Database, while a 1987 TV version and 1993 big-screen remake were equally popular (7.2 and 7.3, respectively). All three films were faithful to the book. But a 2017 steampunk treatment got the cold shoulder (4.5), and two 2000 faquels (fake sequels)—Back to the Secret Garden and Return to the Secret Garden didn’t fare much better, with scores of 5.7 and 5.3.

Is it any wonder that audiences tagged this 2020 “reimagined” incarnation with a 5.6 rating? The weight of audience expectation was dropped like a piano from a rooftop on an otherwise beautifully filmed version, most likely because it dared to change things a bit.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel followed a sickly 10-year-old girl who lived in India with wealthy parents that both ignored and spoiled her. Cared for by Indian servants, she awakened one day to find her parents dead of cholera and the staff long gone. Eventually she was sent to England to live with a hunchbacked uncle and his servants in an isolated mansion on the moors. As it happened, Archibald Craven had sealed off a private walled garden after his wife had died there. But Mary grew ever curious about the garden and also the cries she heard in the house at night. Eventually she found the key that unlocked the garden, hung out with the maid’s younger brother, and discovered a cousin she never knew she had, shuttered away in a hidden room because of a spinal illness that had kept him bedridden. He quickly became a diversion for Mary, who took him (secretly) to see the secret garden.

Writer Jack Thorne and BAFTA-winning director Marc Munden decided to mix things up a bit. They made the garden magical. Plants are ginormous, and far more tropical More

Review of THE HARD WAY (1991) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Crime comedy
Rated R

It’s usually not a good sign when you haven’t heard of a film starring two well-known actors—especially when it was released almost 30 years ago. How good can it be, this film that somehow sank into cinematic obscurity? As it turns out, The Hard Way, starring Michael J. Fox and James Woods, is surprisingly entertaining. It’s a keeper, especially if you’re a fan of buddy cop crime comedies.

The premise reminds you a bit of Ride Along (2014), with its familiar trope of good cop / bad cop referring, as it often does in the genre, to one good cop who’s forced to partner with someone that drives him guano crazy. Sometimes the ride-along is a wannabe cop, as in Ride Along, and sometimes it’s a geeky and clueless desk jockey, as in The Other Guys (2010). Most fans of the buddy cop movies trace the genre to 1987’s Lethal Weapon, which paired a dedicated about-to-retire cop with a loose cannon of a partner who had a death wish. But while most of the buddy cop films that have been made since then have carried a PG-13 rating to keep them more solidly in the realm of family viewing, The Hard Way followed Lethal Weapon’s lead and went with an R rating. There’s some moderate serious violence and some heavy realistic language here.

In this crime comedy from John Badham (WarGames, Short Circuit, Saturday Night Fever), a no-nonsense, anger-management challenged, borderline-rogue New York City detective (Woods) is forced to partner with a naïve Hollywood action hero (Fox) who pulled some strings to arrange the ride-along experience he needs in order to research a serious role he so desperately wants.

If you can get past the hard-to-swallow (but intentionally absurd) clip scenes of the diminutive and baby-faced Fox as an Indiana Jones’ style hero, and if you can believe that he can walk the streets of New York—where giant billboards featuring his face promote his latest movie—and not be recognized, this film has a lot to offer. There are taut action sequences, a solid plot, and a pairing that, however unlikely it seems, still makes you laugh out loud in a quite a few places. It’s every bit as good as films like Ride Along and Running Scared, better than Central Intelligence and Ride Along 2, and nearly as good as other films in the genre. More

Review of THE GREY FOX (1982) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Western-drama
Rated PG

The Grey Fox is the kind of Western that holds some appeal for people who aren’t fans of the genre, because this independent Canadian film is about as far as you can get from the formula Western. Sure, there’s a little gunplay and a few robberies, but this 1982 film is a quiet Western, a character-based film—one that feels like a full-movie version of the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a feature that feels every bit the indie film. There’s only the slightest bit of violence, sex, and language, with the focus on a grandfatherly figure that’s instantly sympathetic.

A number of revisionist Westerns—including Butch and Sundance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, and The Wild Bunch—have embraced an elegiac tone and offered an aging hero who also stands as a symbol for the passing of a romantic Old West that’s now consigned to history. But The Grey Fox stands alone as a story that offers a character that’s stronger than the symbol he was meant to be. And it’s based on a true story, too.

Former stuntman Richard Farnsworth is compelling as the low-key, soft-spoken Bill Miner, who in Canada became as famous and oddly beloved by average people as Jesse James was south of the border. James robbed banks and Miner robbed the railroad—two institutions that were squeezing common people and were therefore resented. Miner was credited for first instructing people to put their “hands up,” and he became known as the Gentleman Bandit because of his politeness, gentility, and strict instructions that his men should never shoot or otherwise harm anyone. The Billy Miner Alehouse in Maple Ridge, British Columbiasd still celebrates this folk hero, not because he robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but because he only took from the hated Canadian Pacific Railway.

Writer John Hunter and director Phillip Borsos (who studied under Francis Ford Coppola) stay pretty close to the truthful parts of the Bill Miner story, choosing only to add their own bit of legend by giving Miner a low-key love interest (Jackie Burroughs) to match his personality—a strong, older woman who never married because she had other ambitions in life. More

Review of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Horror-Mystery
Not rated (would be PG)

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers, which isn’t recommended for family viewing because of offensive outdated cultural stereotypes. The sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place? More

Review of BLOOD QUANTUM (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Horror-thriller
Not rated (would be R)

Blood Quantum isn’t a title that screams “family friendly”—just plain screams, is more like it, considering that this 2019 horror film finds a few inventive new ways to kill zombies. There’s blood and gore and f-bombs galore, but if we’re being honest it’s the kind of film that appeals to older teens and families that enjoy a good frightfest every now and then.

Plus, Blood Quantum deserves a shout-out because this 2019 Canadian film from Jeff Barnaby is that rare horror film made by a First Nations director. Barnaby, a Mi’gmaq, shot much of the film on the same reserve in Listuguj, Quebec where he was born and he spotlights a large cast of First Nations actors. The history of indigenous people in North America is a history of segregation and forced relocation, but this film gets its own symbolic revenge (a theme suggested by two animated segments) by having the reserve be a place where all of the whites now want to go. The film’s key concept is that indigenous people are immune to the zombie plague. While they can be killed, they can’t be turned into zombies themselves. That is, they are immune to whatever zombie virus is being transmitted through zombie bites. As a result, the reserve, ironically, has become the only safe haven in the world.

The title itself is also ironic, because “blood quantum” or “Indian blood” laws were enacted by the U.S. government as a way of legally defining racial groups—too often a first step toward isolation and persecution. Here, blood quantum is a saving grace, and the political statement that Barnaby makes in his second full-length feature (the politically charged Rhymes for Young Ghouls was his first) is unmistakable. More

Review of AGAINST ALL FLAGS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Adventure-Romance
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood made a lot of Westerns in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, but they also made a fair number of pirate movies. Against All Flags (1952) wasn’t one of the absolute best, but it gave audiences a rare pairing of Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara—both of whom had starred in swashbucklers before.

For Flynn, who first played a pirate in Captain Blood (1935) opposite Olivia de Havilland, his best swordplay was behind him. In Against All Flags he’s less jumpy, calmer, mellowed a bit with age, and no doubt slightly slowed by his bad-boy partying lifestyle. Yet, in this film that only makes him interestingly more human and less of a cardboard Hollywood leading man. For O’Hara, who had appeared in Spanish Main costumers with Tyrone Power and John Payne, The Black Swan remains her slightly superior pirate pic, but she’s at her feistiest in Against All Flags.

Here are my Top 10 pirate movies, so you can appreciate where I’m coming from:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)—A
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)—A
  3. Captain Blood (1935)—A
  4. The Sea Hawk (1940)—A-
  5. The Crimson Pirate (1952)—A-
  6. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)—B+
  7. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)—B+
  8. Treasure Island (1950)—B
  9. The Black Swan (1942)—B
  10. Against All Flags (1952)—B-

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