Salvador


Viewed – 22 July 2020. Blu-ray

Oliver Stone has always been one of my favourite directors. This at times politically-charged film-maker has often impressed with powerful war movies like Platoon or hard-hitting satire with his controversial Natural Born Killers. I recall being quite affected by this 1986 drama portraying the violence and civil unrest in El Salvador that broke out in the early eighties. James Woods plays a desperate, seasoned journalist on hard times out to get that big story, who travels into El Salvador along with his friend, played by James Belushi. However once there he realises he may have under-estimated the dangers of the situation as war breaks out.

Revisiting this movie many years after first seeing it, I didn’t remember much but it still packed a punch. There’s some recognisable faces amongst its support cast (is that the bad guy from Crocodile Dundee 2 and the girl from Predator?) that screams 80s. However the imagery can at times be surprisingly unflinching, mixed in with I’m guessing real-life victim footage and most likely real-life residents of the area for added authenticity. Woods, an actor I’ve often enjoyed watching is good but a little too caricature for the otherwise realistic tone. His motor-mouth performance also makes him stand out and look a bit out of place. Belushi is rather annoying too. John Savage on the other hand as a war photographer proves the most believable.

Above and beyond all of that, it’s Oliver Stone’s direction, his camera-work and the gradual, building tension and constant threat of.violence that stands out, even if the more shocking scenes can seem a tad forced (the scene with the women on the bus). Yet this still retained its power even 30+ years later. Worth a watch.

The Blu-Ray from Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ label has a good to very good image quality with only the occasional appearance of flickering. Close-ups and larger scale scenes all look detailed and vibrant. Audio is presented in either the original mono or a new 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track which is mostly decent but occasionally sound seems to drop in quality like its reverting to its mono track. Doesn’t happen often enough to be a major issue though. Extras consist of a very worthwhile commentary by director Oliver Stone as well as a 62 minute making of called ‘Into the Valley of Death’, interviews, deleted scenes and a trailer. Also included in this release is a detailed booklet with an essay by film critic Barry Forshaw.

Verdict:

(the movie) Good

(the Blu-Ray) Recommended

Videodrome


Viewed – 22 August 2015  Blu-ray

Collector’s Edition

David Cronenberg has easily cemented himself as one of the most challenging and daring directors to have ever gained mainstream popularity.  Perhaps still most famous for the Jeff Goldblum remake of The Fly, this Canadian born visionary film maker has for me, made some of the most powerfully bold and disturbing interpretations of horror I have seen.  This 1982 effort saw him break out from obscure fair like The Brood and Shivers and finally deliver his own distinct voice.

Videodrome cassette

Starring James Woods and Deborah Harry (of Blondie) this follows the story of Max Ren, a sleazy cable TV executive on the look out for new material for his network.  One day he stumbles upon Videodrome, a broadcast that appears to be purely torture and violence – the exact kind of material he thinks his viewers will want.  Only thing is, Videodrome comes with a deadly signal that causes horrific and freakish hallucinations in anyone who watches it.

videodrome nikkiDespite a meagre budget and fairly basic production values, Cronenberg lavishes the whole movie in a visual style that presents television as a strange new villain in a way that the internet could be perceived the same today.  This movie was ahead of it’s time in it’s themes of living through another medium, and even one character refers to us all having different names that we’ll one day take on, sort of like avatars in a chat room.  It’s very cleverly observed.  Cronenberg tried to lesser extent to bring such ideas into the modern age in his sort-of sequel Existenz which explored videogames instead of television, but it’s here that his concept is at it’s boldest.  Deborah Harry is provocative, sexy and daring, not afraid to shed some clothing and portray herself as a self-harming adrenalin junkie, and Woods is perfect as the guy who takes a bite out of the forbidden fruit.  Acting isn’t exactly stellar though and supporting cast are amateurish at best.  It also get’s a little lost in it’s own hallucinatory world towards the end.  But with still impressive make-up work from An American Werewolf In London’s Rick Baker (bar the dodgy gun-hand-thing) and some creative gore along with a few ingenious effects (the breathing TV) – this still had the power to shock and creep this viewer out, even all these year’s later.

videodrome

This Arrow Video release comes in a limited edition collector’s packaging that has a detailed hardback book exploring the film and Cronenberg’s career with fresh interviews and archival text.  The movie has always been in great shape and the same can be said here in a very vivid and clear image with equally crisp sound even if it’s only in mono.  Arrow, swiftly becoming my go-to company for great treatment of genre classics, has once again pulled no punches with this release and the extras are simply exhaustive.  A commentary by critic Tim Lucas, a number of detailed featurettes and documentaries, behind the scenes footage, a deleted scene and in this limited edition set a few of the director’s early short films.  In a word: impressive.

Verdict:

(the movie)  4 /5

(the Blu-ray)  5 /5

Casino


Viewed – 08 May 2015  Blu-ray

20th Anniversary Special Edition

I first saw this acclaimed mob drama a number of year’s ago, and even though I knew it was based on a true story, only recently have I learned about the real-life events the story follows.  Robert DeNiro plays professional gambler Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein who gets the opportunity to run the Tangier’s Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in the late seventies.  He makes a big pil o’ cash for the mob ‘back home’ and attracts former childhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) who also has ideas of making a killing on the strip…literally and figuratively.  Meanwhile Ace falls for glamorous hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone) who soon complicates everyone’s lives.

casino

A spiritual successor to director Martin Scorsese’s other famed mob classic Goodfellas, reuniting DeNiro with Pesci … who pretty much plays the same type of unhinged psycho that nabbed him an Oscar in ‘Fellas.    DeNiro however, despite his character’s connections to the mob, is more the straight guy trying to avoid any sort of ‘heat’ – and his presence here commands the movie from beginning to end.  Stone is a welcome inclusion to the Scorsese mob-movie fold and adds her usual sexy sass and grit in a role that pretty much enables this movie to have it’s own voice.  At a butt-numbing three hours it can sometimes drag, yet the situations, strong performances and the whole glitz of the setting (not to mention a stellar soundtrack) make for great entertainment.  It’s incredibly violent at times, to the point of being gratuitous (especially towards the end) and the story isn’t as engrossing as it thinks it is.  Also some of the ‘artistic licence’ with the facts remain puzzling (Tangiers is fictional, based on the famed Stardust hotel) and DeNiro and Pesci’s character names are made up, but based on Frank Rosenthal and Anthony Spilotro respectively.  Yet to quibble at this is to do the movie a disservice, as it remains another decent, if familiar mob drama from the true master of the subject.

The Blu-ray, re-issued for the movie’s 20th anniversary has a very nice image quality, retaining grain and detail even if some shots (especially in door and night time scenes) get a little fuzzy.  The sound in DTS HD Master Audio, which is very dialogue-driven is mostly excellent and the fantastic soundtrack really brings this one to life.  Vegas looks incredible also.  The extras consist of a ‘moments with the cast & crew’ option which has pop up interviews as the movie plays.  We also get a couple of detailed documentaries, as well as a few deleted scenes.  However, there doesn’t seem anything here that wasn’t on previous releases … making for a bit of a cash-in.

Verdict:

(the movie)  3.5 /5

(the Blu-ray)  4 /5

White House Down


Viewed – 25 January 2014  Pay-per-view

Approaching this you get the feeling it’s going to immediately be what the latest Die Hard movie wasn’t … as in an actual Die Hard movie. Channing Tatum goes to the White House for an interview to become a Secret Service agent, bringing his plucky daughter along because she’s up on her politics and kinda has a thing for current President Jamie Foxx.  Yet whilst at the big white building, a group of terrorists attack and as you can imagine, Tatum is the only man who might be able to get the President out alive.

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Not a new idea by a long shot, but given a certain panache by director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow).  So expect gunfights, one-liners, a smattering of humour and plenty of things that go boom.  What I wasn’t expecting however was the fun partnership between Tatum and Foxx (making for one of the cooler Presidents in Hollywood history) and an overdose of rather bad CGI (the helicopters flying through the city looked awful).  Emmerich is known for having no subtlety, and believability pretty much goes out of the window in the second half of the movie, not helped by an increasingly annoying Joey King playing Tatum’s daughter (was she the best we could have got for a fairly important role?) and a barrel load of cheese towards the end.  Tatum looked the part (complete with white vest) but lacked a certain level of charisma I’d say.  James Woods also pops up and is very good, as is Maggie Gyllenhaal even if she gets very little to do.  Oh and every twist is so blatantly sign posted, I gave up expecting surprises and just enjoyed the ride.

This was a lot of fun, but could have been a classic if Emmerich had just applied the breaks (and his brain) for once.

Verdict:  3 /5