Blu-Ray Review: Midnight Run

Director: Martin Brest
Screenplay: George Gallo
Starring: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, Dennis Farina, Joe Pantoliano
Country: USA
Running Time: 126 min
Year: 1988
BBFC Certificate: 18

The majority of films I review are first time watches or at least films that I haven’t seen for a while. This is largely due to the fact that I mainly just review screeners and don’t often take discs offered that I already own. However, when a Midnight Run press release reached me recently I went against the grain, reviewing something I own and saw (for the first time) only a few months ago. I decided to go with it partly because the original DVD release was terribly presented (see the bottom of the page), but also because I really enjoyed the film and couldn’t resist an excuse to watch it again.

Midnight Run is not quite a ‘cult classic’ in the Rocky Horror sense of the phrase. It’s more of an under-appreciated gem that picked up some strong reviews on its release and made a bit of money, but wasn’t really the hit it was expected to be (it came out on the same day as Die Hard which didn’t help) and kind of disappeared from people’s radars over the years. It has picked up a bit of a following though so the fine people over at Second Sight deemed it worthy of a brand spanking new Blu-Ray release.

The film stars Robert De Niro as bounty hunter Jack Walsh, who is hired by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to track down and bring in former Mafia accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), who has embezzled $15 million from notorious mob boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). Jack finds The Duke straight away, but the journey back to prison isn’t so simple because Serrano’s goons are hot on their heels as well as the FBI and another bounty hunter, Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) who wants in on the action. The unlikely central pair clash during the long journey across the country, but a friendship slowly develops despite their differences and the obvious elephant in the room of Jack’s job and The Duke’s crime.

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DVD Review: What We Do in the Shadows

Director: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Screenplay: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
Country: New Zealand/USA
Running Time: 86 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 15

Being a fan of Flight of the Conchords and hearing a lot of early buzz about What We Do in the Shadows, the latest film project by one half of the Conchords team, Jemaine Clement, I was desperate to catch it when it was released late last year. Unfortunately it only screened in a handful of theatres so I missed it, but luckily Metrodome have just brought the film out in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray so I snapped up the chance to review it to see if it lived up to the hype.

Written and directed by Clement alongside Eagle vs Shark director Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary looking at the day to day lives of four vampires, Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Petyr (Ben Fransham). They share a flat together in Wellington, New Zealand and leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, a huge annual event for the local undead, the group live out their fairly dull extended lives, sleeping during the daytime and feeding from victims in the evening. During such a night, the guys add another member to the household, when Petyr turns young Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a vampire too. This allows the audience to witness the teething troubles (bad pun intended) of making the transformation as well as adding his human friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford) into the equation.

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Blu-Ray Review: Massacre Gun

Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Screenplay: Yasuharu Hasebe, Ryûzô Nakanishi
Starring: Jô Shishido, Jirô Okazaki, Tatsuya Fuji, Hideaki Nitani, Takashi Kanda
Country: Japan
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: 15

Similarly to my last review, of Wooden Crosses, you’ll have to excuse me comparing the film I’m reviewing to a similar one seen recently. Back in October I watched and reviewed Youth of the Beast and was blown away by how stylish and mind-bogglingly cinematic it was. Massacre Gun isn’t by the same director (the great Seijun Suzuki), but it’s got the same star and is from the same studio sub-genre, Nikkatsu Noir. These are crime or gangster thrillers in a film noir vein, produced by the famous Japanese studio Nikkatsu, who made a number of these in the late 50’s and 60’s.

Massacre Gun starts with a bang. Mob hitman Kuroda (Jô Shishido) is sent to kill the woman he loves. He dutifully carries out the task before the credits have finished rolling. However, after his youngest brother, aspiring boxer Saburô (Jirô Okazaki), has his hands smashed in after standing up to mob boss Akazawa (Takashi Kanda), Kuroda tells his employer that he wants to quit. Akazawa won’t accept this and makes Kuroda’s life as difficult as possible, prompting him to join his two brothers and take on the mob boss at his own game. This of course has violent consequences.

As that brief synopsis demonstrates, Massacre Gun is a more conventional film than Youth of the Beast and especially Suzuki’s other famous gangster films Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter. The revenge and gang warfare angle has been well mined over the years. However, director Yasuharu Hasebe does a decent job and it’s still a great example of the genre. There are a couple of unusual over the top moments too, such as a body rigged with explosives and some unusual scenery such as having one scene set against a beach covered in burning boats.

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Blu-Ray Review: Sweet Smell of Success

Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
Based on a Novella by: Ernest Lehman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner
Producer: James Hill
Country: USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1957
BBFC Certificate: 12A

I recently moved house and with all the unpacking and DIY to do I’ve been building a bit of a backlog of screeners to review. In hindsight I should have been sensible and not taken any on over this period, but I struggle to turn down the opportunity to watch some of the interesting and exciting titles I get offered from my PR/distributor friends. If we’re talking about being sensible, I certainly shouldn’t have said yes to Arrow Academy’s new re-release of Sweet Smell of Success, as the offer came late when I was already very busy and it’s a film I’ve seen before and actually own on DVD. However, it’s such a great film which I haven’t seen for a long time and the chance to watch a nicely remastered Blu-Ray from the ever reliable Arrow family is very hard to turn down. So I didn’t.

The under-appreciated director Alexander Mackendrick made his US directorial debut with Sweet Smell of Success after a string of well-loved Ealing comedies in the UK (and the drama Mandy, a.k.a. Crash of Silence). The film follows slimy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) as he worms his way through New York City’s nightlife, attempting to appease the all-powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). This brutish journalist has the power to have a man “sentenced to death” (professionally speaking) and he has given Falco an important task, to break up the burgeoning relationship between Hunsecker’s sister, Susie (Susan Harrison), and the jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). You see, although Hunsecker is a hateful and frightening person, he is incredibly protective of his younger sister and won’t let anyone else get close to her, particularly a lowly jazz musician. Steve is a good man though and the two are very much in love. This doesn’t stop Falco, who hatches has a plan to use Steve’s integrity to his advantage. As he puts it, integrity is “a pocket fulla firecrackers – looking for a match!” Once this is set up (pretty quickly), for the rest of the film the audience sits back and watches Falco put his devious scheme into action.

‘Sits back’ probably isn’t the right word though. Although the plot isn’t particularly dense (the film is largely made up of a lot of acid-tinged conversations), it’s an exhausting watch. The immensely quotable dialogue fires out like a machine gun (check out the IMDB quotes page) and the camera never stands still as we are whisked from nightclub to office to bedroom. It’s quite a dizzying trip into the depths of depravity one man will go to find what he calls success.

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Blu-Ray Review: From Bedrooms to Billions

Director: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Writers: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Starring: David Braben, Peter Molyneux, Shahid Ahmad, Nigel Alderton, Nick Alexander, Fred Gray, Geoff Crammond, Jeff Minter, Jon Hare, Matthew Smith
Producers: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Country: UK
Running Time: 150 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E

From Bedrooms to Billions is an independent documentary looking at the birth and growth of the British video games industry, funded by an Indiegogo campaign run by its producers/directors/writers, Anthony and Nicola Caulfield. Speaking to a vast number of those involved, the pair tell the story of how young geeks figuring out how to make basic games on the first home computers like the Sinclair ZX80, Spectrum and BBC B/Micro went on to build a small cottage industry out of nothing which went on to be an important driver of what is now the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

When I first saw the film advertised I thought it looked like your standard nostalgia trip, the likes of which you see filling gaps in TV schedules, but being a child of the 80’s who grew up alongside video games (although I’m a little young for the Spectrum, I came in with the Acorn Electron then the Amiga), I couldn’t resist going along for the ride. However, I quickly came to realise that this is actually an exceptionally well researched and constructed documentary which truly charts the history of the movement. It’s not a throwaway piece simply glazing over and making do with playing clips over quotes saying how great all these games were. This is especially apparent in the sheer number of contributors the directors managed to interview. The list is exhausting, taking in well known figures such as David Braben (co-creator of Elite) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, etc.) as well as those involved in video game music and art design.

It’s a fascinating story too. I was well aware of how games and consoles have developed over the last 30-odd years, but I hadn’t thought about where it all came from. The film makes you realise just how wild and avant-garde it was. When the first systems came out, there weren’t any games available. You didn’t have shops in every high street stocked to the roof with them. You had to programme your own games by typing lines and lines of code. Many of the first home games would be found in magazines that would publish the coding for them. The people who developed the industry were largely youngsters barely out of school (some still in it), who had no business knowledge, so it was a crazy mess in its infancy. It all began of course in the pre-internet days so it was truly underground at first and grew through magazines and word of mouth. The film does an excellent job of appreciating how this happened.

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Blu-Ray Review: Man of the West

Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Based on a Novel by: Will C. Brown
Starring: Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord
Producer: Walter M. Mirisch
Country: USA
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1958
BBFC Certificate: 12A

I‘ve been enjoying my own mini western renaissance over the last couple of years. I’d always held a handful of westerns in high regard, with probably my all time favourite film (Once Upon a Time in the West) being from the genre, but I hadn’t considered myself a ‘fan’ until recently. My love of Leone was possibly part of the reason, steering me away from Hollywood westerns and towards the Italian ones, most of which are woefully unavailable in the UK. However, the last few years have opened my eyes to a number of true American greats and now I can proudly call myself a fully fledged western fan.

The film which began my new love affair with the west was Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73. I adored it and was pleased that most of the rest of the director’s collaborations with James Stewart were in same the DVD box set that housed it. My run of westerns since then has taken in classics from a variety of stars and directors too and I still haven’t been disappointed (other than with one or two less respected spaghetti westerns). I’ve been gathering whatever titles I can, whenever I see any on offer, and, looking up Mann’s filmography, I also liked the sound of one of his last westerns, Man of the West. I hadn’t got around to it though, until the PR guys behind the ever trustworthy Masters of Cinema series offered me a Blu-Ray screener of their new release of the film.

Man of the West stars Hollywood legend Gary Cooper as Link Jones, who enters a bustling town to take a train to Fort Worth, where he is to hire a teacher for his much smaller town. There’s a sense that he’s not the quiet do-gooder he claims though or so the local sheriff suspects. When the train gets hijacked by bandits and Link, motor-mouthed salesman Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and attractive bar-room singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) are thrown off and left to walk to the nearest town, we learn the truth about the mysterious man. He takes his two companions to his old home, where they find the gang of bandits that includes a couple of Link’s cousins and is led by none other than his uncle, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). And so begins a tense power play between the ‘bad guys’ and Link, who wants to continue to go straight as he had been doing for many years, but has no choice but to play the hard man to avoid getting himself and his innocent friends killed.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Director: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, Alexander Korda (uncredited), Zoltan Korda (uncredited), William Cameron Menzies (uncredited)
Screenplay: Miles Malleson, Lajos Biró, Miklós Rózsa
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin, Rex Ingram
Producer: Alexander Korda
Country: UK
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1940
BBFC Certificate: U

Just a couple of months ago I reviewed Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad, which blew me away. It was the most spectacular silent movie I’d ever seen which was as fun as it was awe inspiring. Having heard good things about Alexander Korda’s 1940 version, I was keen to compare the two films, so jumped at the chance of reviewing Network’s new Blu-Ray release of the film. Because of this, my review will largely be matching the later film against the earlier one, so forgive me if you’re more interested in how it stands alone, but I saw the first so recently it’s difficult not to compare and contrast.

In terms of plot, although a number of core aspects and some key scenes are the same (coming from stories from the Arabian Nights), much of what and how it happens is quite different. The big change is in basically splitting the thief character from the 1924 film into two. The titular thief in Korda’s version is young Abu (Sabu), who pinches food to survive as well as to cause mischief, but the love story driving things forward is instead given to Ahmad (John Justin). Ahmad is the rightful king of Bagdad, but the evil Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) tricks him into being captured as a thief and throws him in jail. Here he meets Abu who also got arrested and sentenced to death. The two escape together and set off for a life of adventure. However, not long into this new life, Ahmad sets eyes on the Princess of Basra and instantly falls in love. This begins a quest to win her hand (he wins her heart straight away), which is made very difficult as Jaffar is also besotted with the princess and has the magical power and resources to keep Ahmad at bay. Thus begins an adventure which involves a mechanical flying horse, a giant genie and Abu being turned into a dog.

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Blu-Ray Review: Ganja & Hess

Director: Bill Gunn
Screenplay: Bill Gunn
Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn
Producer: Chiz Schultz
Country: USA
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 18

Eureka released Blacula – The Complete Collection ( in October and not long after are releasing another African-American take on the Dracula story, Ganja & Hess. There is little else connecting the two films though as Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is a wholly different animal than the earlier campy, badass blaxploitation film.

Producers first approached Gunn to make something that would cash in on Blacula’s success, but the director had no desire to make a cheap bit of exploitation. He had wanted to make a film about addiction though, so decided to take this idea and infuse it into a vampire story. The result is a film with much more artistic and profound ambitions than Blacula and although it came at the height of the blaxploitation boom, it didn’t really fit the mold, eschewing the flares and kung fu for experimentation and symbolism. This didn’t impress the money men of course, who swiftly handed the print to ‘film doctor’ Fima Noveck, who chopped the near 2 hour film to 78 minutes and retitled Blood Couple (along several other names as it did the runs around the world), adding previously excised exposition to make something more closely resembling the exploitation flick they’d wanted. It bombed, although the furious Gunn took his original cut to the Cannes Film Festival where it screened in the Director’s Week. It was better received there, but still the film disappeared into obscurity until more recent years when Gunn’s version was restored for modern audiences. This is what is being released here by Eureka.

Ganja & Hess sees Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) stabbed by an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant George Meda (Gunn himself). This makes Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. After Meda commits suicide, his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) appears at Hess’ mansion looking for him. She falls for Hess’ charms and after they marry and Hess passes his ‘gift’ on to her, the two form an unusual, bloody relationship.

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Blu-Ray Review: Young and Innocent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood, Anthony Armstrong, Gerald Savory
Based on a Novel by: Josephine Tey
Starring: Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney, Percy Marmont, Edward Rigby
Producer: Edward Black
Country: UK
Running Time: 83 min
Year: 1937
BBFC Certificate: U

I‘ve always been a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I even wrote my University dissertation on his collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann, but there are still a number of gaps in his filmography that I need to fill. I’ve seen pretty much all of his most famous work, particularly his phenomenal run of films through the 50’s and 60’s, but there are a number of his early British films that I haven’t seen. This period in his career doesn’t always get the love and attention that it deserves. Granted, many of these older titles haven’t aged as well as classics like Rear Window or North by Northwest, but there is much to admire and enjoy in his early work. The 39 Steps remains one of my favourite Hitchcock films for instance and I was surprised by how much I liked what he himself considered his true directorial debut, The Lodger when I was sent it to review a couple of years ago.

This brings me to Young and Innocent (a.k.a. The Girl Was Young), a film which I hadn’t seen before now, even though I had a DVD copy on my shelf gathering dust over several years (this happens far too often than I care to admit – shopping addiction is a dangerous thing). Coming in 1937, this, his 22nd feature film as sole director, is actually almost mid-career for Hitchcock in terms of volume, although he’d only been directing features for little over a decade. Taking the ‘wrong man’ mistaken identity formula he’d had great success with on The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent sees Derrick De Marney star as Robert Tisdall, a young man accused of murdering an actress whose body washes up on a beach. He’s innocent of course and escapes from the law to prove it because they won’t listen to him. Along the way he enlists the help of a police constable’s daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam), who believes his story and falls for his charms.

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