Category Archives: Adventure

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Valley (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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The Last Valley – Kino-Lorber

Films set in Germany during The Thirty Years War are a niche genre…but as far as films set in Germany during the Thirty Years War go, one could do worse than this nearly forgotten but worthwhile drama from writer-director James Clavell.

The “outsider” is a recurring theme in Clavell’s work; and this tale is no exception. In this case the “outsider” is a two-headed beast in the form of an apolitical war refugee (Omar Sharif) and the ruthless Captain (Michael Caine) of a small contingent of mercenaries who both stumble upon a “hidden” valley whose residents have somehow managed to remain unscathed by the ravages of war and the Plague.

The Captain is ruthless (he would just as soon slit your throat as look at you) but also pragmatic; he decides against his initial impulse to kill Sharif, pillage the sleepy hamlet and move on after the quick thinking and silver-tongued Sharif convinces him it would be better all-around to spare the residents in exchange for putting his battle-weary soldiers up for the winter. The villagers, who seem malleable and complacent at first, come to reveal their own brand of pragmatism. A well-mounted period piece that also works as a timeless observation of human behavior in survival situations.

Kino-Lorber’s transfer of this 1971 film is excellent (although it does not look restored) and the audio quality is decent, which serves John Barry’s rousing score quite well. The only extra is a new commentary track, by a trio of film historians. It gets overly chatty at times with three people, but for the most part the observations are enlightening.

Guest review: Call of the Wild (***)

By Bob Bennett

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Summary: An enjoyable film that skips the intensity of the original Jack London tale for an endearing “man loves dog” theme with surprisingly good special effects. Haters are gonna hate but this movie punches above its weight and makes you ponder what “civilized” really means.

** Possible light spoilers ahead if you’ve never read the source novel**

I am an unlikely admirer of Chris Sanders’ new family-friendly fantasy adventure Call of the Wild. I have never liked the perennially grumpy Harrison Ford, was convinced that using a CGI dog would be a travesty and was primed for disappointment as an amateur Klondike gold rush historian (I lead tours in Seattle on the gold rush).  And so, it was a surprise when I was genuinely touched by this movie that somehow punched above its weight.

The movie is the tenth film adaptation of Jack London’s original novel, The Call of the Wild, which was an instant success when released in 1903.  The book, authored by one of the first hardy souls to travel over the Chilkoot Pass when gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, was unsparing in its depiction of the brutality of nature.

Essentially the book is about how easily the thin veneer of society can be stripped away to reveal a harsh world where man and dog fight to survive through tooth and claw.  Frankly, in 2020 the book is a tough read; think angry Darwinism focused on inherent violence.

This version (adapted from London’s novel by Michael Green) is very Disney-esque, meaning that the movie is suitable for kids but still has enough going on for adults to be entertained.  Violent parts of the book are softened, non-PC portions are left behind (there are many) and new story elements have been added to heighten appeal.

Like the book, the movie presents human feelings through the experiences of a dog without going all in for anthropomorphism (the animals do not talk for example).  The book was always a work of fiction and the movie borders on fantasy.

Buck, a large city dog who is kidnapped and sold into the violent sled dog trade, is the main character.  As a stylized CGI dog, Buck has a commanding personality with just enough visual fidelity to let you regard him as real and with few distracting details.  Buck’s leaps and bounds are incredibly life-like due to use of motion capture sequences of a real dog and his facial expressions are very realistic – and I say that as someone who owns two large canines.

The other dogs in the movie and the wolves are well portrayed – such is the control that CGI gives the director.  One has to wonder if this type of lush storytelling will color our common perception of nature, since there is less and less “real nature.”  As another plus, the filming had a very low footprint on the real environment.  Still, if you can’t get over the CGI, you will not like the movie (in case you were wondering, all the human characters are portrayed by real actors).

The protagonist is a grizzled and despondent prospector, John Thornton, who is played by the well cast Harrison Ford.  John rescues Buck from a cruel and clueless owner (a city slicker of course) and bonds with him.  Ford struggles with old age, regrets and alcoholism – great family fare right?

There are three phases in the narrative.  The first covers Buck’s kidnapping from his plush city life and his baptism into the cruel world of men the dogs they enslave in pursuit of money.  The second features Buck development as a leader of his own pack of dogs.  The final chapter is Buck and John’s Homeric journey into the wilderness which is essentially a quest for deliverance from the evils of man.

The movie was shot partially on green screen, partially on location in California and features gorgeous background plates shot in the Yukon.  Somehow it mostly all works except for a bizarre scene where a pheasant is flushed (a few thousand miles North of their real habitat).

A high point is an incredible dog team action scene with Buck having earned his place as lead dog.  Buck takes his humans for the ride of their life and saves them from a huge avalanche (which was not in the book).

The movie is ultimately a lead up to Buck gradually integrating with a pack of wolves (who are incredibly lifelike).  The conflicting pull that Buck feels for John and the call of the wild by his new pack is the central theme of the story and is beautifully rendered on screen.

“Call of the WIld” is available for home viewing on pay-per-view (Disney)

Blu-ray reissue: Godzilla: The Showa Era Films 1954-1975 (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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Godzilla: The Showa Era Films 1954-1975 – Criterion Collection

I admit that I was pretty, pretty excited when I heard about this 15-film box set. To which some of you are likely saying to yourself as you read this: “What are you, 8 years old?!” Well…as I once wrote in a short review of Godzilla vs. Hedora (aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster):

Who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie).

OK, every Godzilla feature isn’t a “message” film; sometimes, a movie about a monster who emerges from the sea to knock shit over is just a movie about a monster knocking shit over until he gets bored and then slinks back into the sea (roll credits). But hey, those wonderfully unapologetic Japanese films with guys in monster suits knocking over model buildings and decimating toy tanks and toy fighter jets have never looked as sharp as this!

All 15 films in the series (which kicks off with 1954’s black and white classic Gojira and bookends with 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla) are presented in beautiful new HD transfers. I haven’t had a chance to explore all the extras yet, but they are plentiful. The 8 Blu-ray discs are housed in a hardcover book that includes beautiful graphics and essays on each film. Collectors should appreciate the overall space-saving design of the package.

Blu-ray reissue: The Earthling (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Earthling – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

The late William Holden had a distinguished career that began in the late 1930s and ended with his untimely death in 1981 (his final role was in the Blake Edwards comedy S.O.B., released that year). In an interview on TCM last year, his widow (actress Stephanie Powers) stated one of his favorite roles was playing the lead in this small 1980 drama.

Holden plays a terminally ill drifter who returns to his native Australia for the first time in years, to take one final solitary hike to the isolated homestead where he grew up. By chance, he crosses paths with a dazed young boy (Ricky Schroeder) who is wandering around the wilderness after witnessing the death of his parents in a freak accident. At first, he is gruff and indifferent to the boy (almost cruelly so); but necessity sparks a “master and apprentice” relationship between the two as they forge on through the wild. Peter Collinson directed this unique and moving film.

No extras, but Kino’s new 2K mastering nicely accentuates the beautiful scenic locations.

Blu-ray reissue: Dietrich and Sternberg in Hollywood [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 1, 2018)

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Dietrich and Sternberg in Hollywood – Criterion Blu-ray (Box Set)

I picked up this box set with trepidation. Previously, I’d only seen two collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and leading lady Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel and Shanghai Express). While I found both quite watchable, they struck me as creaky and melodramatic; it seemed “enough” at the time to get the gist of their creative partnership.

After watching all six films in this Criterion set (and being older and wiser this time around), I “get it” now. Viewing them as a unique film cycle reveals that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; this is Dietrich and Sternberg’s idiosyncratic cinematic universe; a romantic, glamorous, adventurous, exotic world-and you’re just soaking in it. Once you have given yourself over to Dietrich’s mesmerizing allure… plots don’t matter.

The films in the set were all made for Paramount in the early to mid-1930s. Included are: the romantic drama Morocco (1930), spy thriller Dishonored (1931), adventure-romance Shanghai Express (1932), romantic drama Blonde Venus (1932), costume drama The Scarlet Empress (1934), and the comedy-drama-romance The Devil is a Woman (1935).

The films have all been restored and boast new scans (some 2K, others 4K), rendering them as clean and sparkly as they can possibly be for 80+ year-old prints. This visual clarity accentuates Sternberg’s flair for composition and visual language. Extras include documentaries, video essays, archival interviews, and an 80-page book. Buffs will love it.

Don’t look down: Free Solo (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 13, 2018)

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In my 2011 review of the film Drive, I wrote:

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that a man…a real man…has gotta adhere to a Code. Preferably a “warrior” code of some sort. […] Steve McQueen…there was a guy who specialized in playing characters who lived by a code; he also brought a sense of Zen cool to the screen. There were others, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood.

It seemed inevitable that at some point in E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary Free Solo, it would be revealed that its “star”, free-soloist climber Alex Honnold, lives by such a code.

“For [my girlfriend] the point of life is like, happiness,” the soft-spoken, seemingly unflappable Honnold confides at one juncture, “To be with people that make you feel fulfilled; to have a good time. For me, it’s all about performance. Anybody can be happy and cozy. […] Nobody achieves anything great because they are happy and cozy. It’s about being a warrior. It doesn’t matter about the cause, necessarily. This is your path and you will pursue it with excellence. You face your fear, because your goal demands it. That is the goddamned warrior spirit. I think the free-soloing mentality is pretty close to warrior culture; where you give something 100% focus, because your life depends on it.”

I’m taking his word for it. When it comes to heights…I get a nosebleed from thick socks.

It’s not that the Spock-like Honnold never experiences fear; he just processes it differently from most humans. Literally. In one scene, a bemused Honnold gets a brain MRI. The results? “You have no activation in your amygdala,” the neurologist marvels, “Things that are typically stimulating for the rest of us just aren’t doing it for you.” Hmm.

Honnold (now 33) dropped out of UC Berkeley at 19, scrapping his original plan to study engineering so he could free-climb full time. He’s become a rock star in the climbing world over the years, striving to outdo himself with each ascent. In June of 2017 Honnold went for his ultimate personal best by aiming to be the first person to do a free solo ascent of the 3,200-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Vasarhelyi re-teamed with her husband, photographer/mountaineer Jimmy Chin (the couple co-directed the 2014 film Meru) to document Honnold’s meticulous preparation and the attempt itself.

The deliberate pacing of the film’s first two thirds, which gives only fitful peeks at what makes the taciturn, borderline hermetic Honnold tick, belies the genuine excitement of the final third, which rewards the viewer’s patience in spades. There are glimpses at his personal life with his devoted girlfriend, who seems to have resigned herself to accepting his eccentricities as par for the course. Well, you know what they say- “whatever works”.

You may already know whether Honnold achieved his goal; I had no clue before watching the film (I haven’t gone out of my way to follow the world of free climbing). I also purposely did not Google his name beforehand, because I figured it would ratchet up the suspense. Boy, did it ever-especially in the film’s climactic climbing sequence, which was the most harrowing, white-knuckled, yet ultimately exhilarating and life-affirming 20 minutes I’ve experienced at the movies in ages (I had a lot of activation in my amygdala).

The photography is stunning (as you would expect from a National Geographic film…they do have a rep to uphold), and the editing in that final sequence is Oscar-worthy. I watched my preview copy on a 40-inch flat screen; but I easily visualize this film as a spectacular big-screen experience. Granted, it will likely end up airing on Nat Geo Channel (with 153 commercials) but go see it at a theater if you get the opportunity.

SIFF 2017: Time Trap *

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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The discovery of a rusted-out VW van near the entrance of an underground cavern prompts a Texas professor/spelunker to investigate what happened to his parents, who mysteriously vanished decades before. Concerned that the professor himself may have now disappeared, two of his students organize a search party, dragging several other friends and young siblings along. From that point forward, it’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink miss-mash of time portals, Spanish conquistadors, Neanderthals, aliens, The Fountain of Youth, a magic ring and the end of the world. The only thing missing is a cohesive narrative (and perhaps a MST3K riff track?). Co-directors Mark Dennis and Ben Foster desperately want us to connect the dots with 1980s films like The Goonies. So I’ll play along: this is the most indecipherable sci-fi mess since Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce.

SIFF 2017: Rocketmen **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Well, if you (like me) have completely missed out on the web series concerning “…the deranged comedic adventures of Seattle’s little-known protectors, The Department of Municipal Rocketry”, have I got news for you. It’s now been distilled into a handy feature film. The result? A feature film that looks like a web series. On film. As someone who loves cheesy 50s sci-fi and the old Republic serials, I “get” what writer-director-animator Webster Crowell was going for here; his cast is obviously having fun, and his self-animated special effects are cleverly interwoven, but-it never quite takes off.

Blu-ray reissue: Lone Wolf and Cub ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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Lone Wolf and Cub –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:

“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”

Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.

Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.

SIFF 2016: Dragon Inn ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Full disclosure: I only recently caught this influential 1967 wuxia adventure for the first time; my excuse being that it is rarely screened and was previously tough to find on home video, until last fall’s (Region “B” only) Blu-ray reissue from Masters of Cinema (which I was able to order from Amazon UK). Judging from the absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, it looks like SIFF attendees are in for a treat, with a big screen film presentation struck from (I’m assuming) the same recent 4K restoration.

King Hu’s film is not your typical Kung-Fu epic; in fact it has more in common with Yojimbo, Rio Bravo and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly than, say,  Enter the Dragon. It’s colorful, exciting, suspenseful…and unpredictable, with a jaw-dropping finale. I know that I’m running the chalk backwards, but the biggest surprise for me was realizing how huge of an influence this film was on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.